Maldives President Abdulla Yameen visits Pakistan on February 25
-Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
In the midst of heightened political confusion in Maldives, following the arrest and ongoing trial of former president Mohamed Nasheed, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom will be in Islamabad on 25 February on a two-day official visit. During his first ever visit to Pakistan, President Gayoom would meet his counterpart Mamnoon Hussain and would also call upon Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Maldives is part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) and matters relating to SAARC and , sources said, regional issues would be discussed when leadership of both countries would meet in Islamabad.
Generally strategic relations are built up against another country or a group of nations. Maldives President’s visit to Islamabad is an example of how a bilateral visit involving two states does not essentially mean that it is against a third state.
The timing of such a visit and the circumstances are of crucial significance here. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to visit Maldives in the second week of next month.
At its independence in 1965, the Maldives joined the United Nations on 20 September. Since 1978, the Maldives has followed a policy of international engagement, intensifying links with strategic partners and the international system. Key issues of interest include advancing national development, supporting international peace and security, including the protection of the environment and the promotion of human rights, and upholding the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.
The Maldivian President was originally scheduled to visit Pakistan in August 2014 but had to cancel the trip at the eleventh hour as Pakistan was in the grip of a severe political crisis due to a mass agitation by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awaami Tehreek (PAT). Even Chinese President Xi Jinping had to cancel his Pakistan trip around the same time for similar reasons.
President Yameen’s visit to Pakistan would be an appetizer of strategic nature before the main course – his visit to China. While in Islamabad President Gayoom and Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif would be expected to review the strategic ties Maldives has with Pakistan and China and how to take it to the next level in double-quick time. Obviously the arrest of Nasheed would also figure and its implications in the discussions. It is quite likely that the Maldivian President embarks on a visit to China soon after his Pakistan trip. In fact, the elephant in the room during President Yameen’s talks with his Pakistani interlocutors would be China and it is the China factor rather than anything else which must bother India most.
Now the job of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is comparatively far more secure than it was last August, but it is Maldivian President Yameen Gayoom who is shaky and his political opponents even claim that he is in a slippery situation. This is the significance of the visit and the fact that Yameen is undertaking his Pakistan visit now underlines that some urgency has come about in the Pakistan-Maldives discourse.
China has been desperately seeking for last 15 years at least to expand its strategic influence in Maldives as part of its South Asia sojourn and it operates its military bases in that country.
China made some intense lobbying with the erstwhile president of Maldives Abdul Gayoom who ruled Maldives for three decades till Nasheed ousted him in 2008 in the country’s first democratic elections. The Chinese target was to acquire a naval base in Marao Island and there were reports of Gayoom nearly handing over the island to China in 2001 but apparently could not dare to do so as the United States got whiff of it and scuttled the move.
A decade after China’s unsuccessful attempt, a resurgent and much stronger China again started lobbying for Marao Island, which will make an ideal submarine base even if climate scientists’ prediction of Maldives going under the sea completely by 2040 or so were to come out correct.
China has also been trying very hard to set up naval bases in Indian Ocean countries like Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, apart from Maldives – the four countries Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be visiting next month.
Significantly, China has rapidly moved away from the era of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and their doctrine of “People’s War” which was largely land-based. A White Paper released by China in November 2000 showed that China consciously started its war doctrine focus from land-based to sea-based. China’s 2001-02 defence budget for the first time hiked the navy’s budget by as much as 35 percent.
Maldivian President’s visit to Pakistan needs to be seen in this perspective. Pakistan had played the crucial role of a go-between in this regard just as Pakistan had played a similar role in bringing US and China closer decades ago.
Islamabad supports the Minicoy Island as being part of the country and rejected Indian territorial claims over the island. However Maldives states that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. Maldives attended the 12th SAARC Summit at Islamabad in January 2004. On the sidelines of the Summit, President and Prime Minister of Pakistan had bilateral meetings with the President of Maldives. The Foreign Secretary held bilateral consultations with the Foreign Secretary of Maldives on the sidelines of SAARC Standing Committee meeting in KathmanduIn. In November 2004, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz visited the Maldives and met with President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Aziz offered to extend credit facility, scholarships, collaboration in scientific and technological fields and training of civil servants, defence and security personnel to Maldives. Pakistan offers scholarships and training courses for the Maldivian nationals.
The Maldives has remained an independent nation throughout its recorded history. Last year, Pakistan and Maldives discussed to broaden defence relations and expansion cooperation in military training, joint military exercises and defence production. During a meeting between Chief of Defence Force, Maldives, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shiyam and Federal Defence Secretary, Lt Gen.(Retd) Asif Yasin Malik here, the both sides also emphasized on cooperation in production small arms, ammunition, aircraft like JF-17, Super Mashak and K-8, security vehicles and bullet proof jackets. Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shiyam said that Pakistan had always been supportive of cordial relations between the two countries and expressed hope that the relationship between the two countries will further deepen. Pakistan and Maldives agreed to expand their bilateral relations especially in trade, communication and manpower training.
Maldives wants the Pakistani airways PIA to chart regular flights to Maldives which should be resumed for improving connectivity. The Maldivian President says that Islam came to Maldives through Pakistan during 1147 AD adding “Our region, concept and vision are common”. He said connectivity can play vital role in improving the economic and trade activities, therefore special emphasis should be given on this sector.
Any political crisis in the Maldives comes as a test for the familiar India-Pakistan rivalry for influence in the region. The latest political development in Male is expected to be inevitably discussed by Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well.
Pakistan’s economic relations with Maldives are not significant, due mainly to lack of direct shipping services between Male’ and Karachi.