Few generals anywhere can expect to receive the kind of media attention and analysis that General Qamar Javed Bajwa does when they go forth on their sojourns. The Pakistani Army chief therefore should be suitably pleased that his visit to the Maldives excited so much verbiage and analyses. Nobody cared very much that the visit was part of a larger one to South East Asia.
The visit would have generated speculation even in ordinary times. At a time when India and Maldives are at odds with each other and President Abdulla Yameen seems to be snug in the Chinese embrace, the visit has assumed added significance. There’s another appetiser. The visit also occurs at a time when discussion on a so-called Bajwa Doctrine is rife among analysts and Pakistani politicos alike, with the former willing to be convinced and the latter damning it at every forum.
The visit of the Pakistan Army chief occurred, very correctly, after the visit of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in July, when a rather anodyne joint communique committed both sides to cooperation between business councils, universities, and various training institutions including those of the civil services.
No bureaucrat in Pakistan is likely to refuse a quiet holiday in Male. Pakistan-Maldives relations improved significantly with the entry of President Yameen, who made a visit to Pakistan in May 2015, the first such visit in eleven years. Apart from commitment to increase trade—chiefly in consumer goods from Pakistan—Maldivian nationals received scholarships for religious study in Pakistan.
When they returned home, they preached a highly puritanical version of Islam that was quite unknown in the archipelago. The end result has been the rise of the monster of radicalism in the tourist paradise. It also meant that Maldivian nationals joining the Islamic State were either training in Pakistan or travelling there to access extremist contacts. That’s a disease that many have contracted after increasing such ‘educational’ ties with Pakistan.
Defence ties with Maldives were hardly of a scale to excite comment. Pakistan naval ships made regular port calls at Male from time to time. Maldives participated in the two yearly exercise ‘Aman’ with Pakistan and other countries. That became an issue only when Maldives recently refused to take part in the “Milan’ exercise with India in February 2018.
The deliverables for the visit of General Bajwa are therefore unclear. The defence ministry announced that teams from the National Counter Terrorism Centre will travel to Pakistan to further cooperation. Maldives is also part of the Saudi Arabia-led military alliance that is apparently focused on countering terrorism, and is headed by former military chief Raheel Sharif. It’s rather ironic that the threat of radicalism in the archipelago arises from precisely these two countries.
There was also a reference during General Bajwa’s visit of ‘joint patrolling’ of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That’s likely to catch New Delhi’s choleric eye. India shares maritime boundaries with its neighbours, and though the trilateral boundaries between India, Sri Lanka and India were demarcated in 1976, the fact remains that passage of Indian or other ships through the EEZ, which extends up to 200 nautical miles, is a hot issue at a time when the phrase ‘free and fair navigation’ is at the heart of anti-China podiums.
Maldivian law states quite simply that “no foreign vessel shall enter the exclusive economic zone of Maldives except with prior authorization from the Government of Maldives”. This seems even stronger language than that of China, except that Maldives is in no position to enforce it. With Pakistani assistance, that may change to an extent. More assistance in this line will surely be with Chinese say so, with the idea of reducing reaction time for ‘assistance’ of any kind.
More likely are disputes on the extent of the continental shelf, which is where the riches of the world are increasingly to be found. Maldives earlier submitted its claims to the ‘Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf’. That claim overlaps with that of Sri Lanka, which is possibly why India reportedly backed off from providing a hydrological survey to Male, which would have helped it stake its claim.
India Maldives and Sri Lanka launched a “Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation” at the level of the National Security Advisors in 2011, as a forum to allow quick decision making on all things maritime. The forum has had its share of successes in several areas. The problem, however, is that the Maldives leadership seems determined to make its ‘anti-India’ position its chief Unique Selling Point.
In a situation where China is now extending its maritime activities into the Indian Ocean, there is potential for trouble. If China is using Pakistan as an extension counter, it gets even worse.