Stopover in Male, eye on Beijing


By Telegraph Correspondent

New Delhi, Oct. 31: Indian Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will halt in Male on November 3 for a few hours of hectic diplomatic messaging to the Maldives government after the tiny island last month agreed to join a key strategic project parented by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Sushma will make the stopover on her way back from Mauritius, where she will join ceremonies marking the 180th anniversary of the landing of Indian indentured labourers.

The minister will be the first high-ranking Indian representative to visit the strategically critical Maldives since Xi landed in Male before travelling to India last month. Sushma will meet foreign minister Dunya Maumoon, daughter of long-time ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the niece of current Maldives President Abdulla Yameen.

Xi’s visit to the Maldives — the first ever by a Chinese President — triggered alarm bells in New Delhi because Yameen and Gayoom have in the past threatened to replace India with China as its strategic pole in the neighbourhood.

During Xi’s visit, the Maldives agreed to join the Chinese President’s “maritime silk route” — a project to forge the new China-led maritime pathways in the Indian Ocean that New Delhi worries represents Beijing’s attempts to gain strategic superiority in India’s neighbourhood.

“There was a Silk Route, but there was also a Spice Route, a Mausam Route, and other routes,” foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said today, speaking about Sushma’s visit to the Maldives. Akbaruddin was referring to the ancient Spice Route that travelled through Kerala and the route that the Monsoon follows — pathways that New Delhi cites as counters to the more famous Silk Route more associated with China and Central Asia.

The subtle message — that India’s neighbours could pick strategic options other than China — will likely be repeated to the Maldives leadership in the few hours Sushma spends there, officials hinted.

“Things are slipping again, and we want to set it right,” an official said.

The Maldives — closer to the coast of India than New Delhi is to Calcutta — is India’s tiniest neighbour but its location along key Indian Ocean maritime routes makes it a key link in India’s strategic calculus.

When democratic elections in the Maldives were repeatedly delayed for months till Yameen was elected late 2013, India worried about Islamist militants using the political chaos in the nation to plot against India.

That period also witnessed unprecedented strain between India and a stand-in government in the Maldives backed by Gayoom and Abdulla that cancelled a $500m contract Male had given to Bangalore-based firm GMR to build and operate an international airport.