New challenges in SAARC as India slams Pak intransigence
By G Parthasarathy | Published: 05th August 2017 10:00 PM |
A few days before he was forced to resign by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, in the face of corruption charges, Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif was busy visiting the Maldives. He visited the tropical nation as the chief guest in its Independence Day celebrations, amidst violence and political turmoil. The nation’s President Abdulla Yameen had forcibly locked out the country’s lawmakers from entering the Parliament. The Opposition had by then secured enough members to impeach the Speaker, who had taken partisan position to block moves in the Parliament, against the President.
India had militarily assisted to protect the elected government in the Maldives in 1988 from a takeover by foreign mercenaries. Relations with Maldives remained strong thereafter till recently. New Delhi has viewed, with deep concern, President Yameen’s recent efforts to scuttle democracy and increasingly take the country’s otherwise moderate population in the direction of authoritarian and radical Islam. These moves were combined with a crackdown on political rivals and the exile of Yameen’s predecessor Mohamed Nasheed to the UK, after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges. The Commonwealth put the Maldives on notice. It was given six months to address concerns, including the detention and prosecution of Opposition leaders, meddling with the judiciary and undermining democratic institutions.
The Maldives, under Yameen, has increasingly embraced radical Wahhabi Islam. Saudi Wahhabi organisations are seeking to brainwash locals into adopting regressive Wahhabi practices. New Delhi has been concerned about the Islamist tendencies emanating from the Maldives, which show signs of radicalising Indian Muslim youths. There is also concern about the growing ties between the Maldives and China. After unilaterally terminating an Indian project for airport development, the Maldives provocatively approved a Chinese investment of $800 million for expanding airport runaways.
The Maldives’ move towards greater embrace of radical Islam has been accompanied by its growing dependence on Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, even as the Maldives moved closer to Saudi Arabia, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network expanded its coverage of suppression of democratic rights in Maldives by the Yameen government. Maldives responded by openly backing the Saudis in their campaign against Qatar and their military intervention in Yemen.
All these developments are taking place when India has come to the conclusion that given Pakistani intransigence, SAARC will no longer be the primary grouping for expanding regional economic cooperation in South Asia and beyond. Despite Pakistani intransigence, India has expanded trade, investment, transportation and connectivity links with all its other neighbours, particularly to its East. Regionally, the primary organisation for expanding such cooperation is no longer SAARC, which brings together South Asian countries from Bangladesh to Afghanistan, but BIMSTEC, which brings together countries across the Bay of Bengal, along with landlocked Nepal and Bhutan.
It was for this reason that Modi invited leaders of BIMSTEC and not SAARC during the Goa Summit of BRICS leaders last year.While India has now developed new mechanisms for promoting cooperation across the Indian Ocean, Sharif’s Maldives visit indicates a growing China-Pak nexus to erode Indian influence across its western shores. These are waters through which India gets around 75 per cent of its supplies of oil and natural gas. China is set to provide Pakistan eight frigates and eight submarines in coming years. New challenges lie ahead across our western shores, which will have to be met imaginatively and resolutely.