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Crisis in the Maldives: A geopolitical chess game

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The outcome of a power struggle in the Maldives that has sparked declaration of an emergency, military control of parliament, and arrests of senior figures, is likely to shape the geopolitical designs of China, India, the United States and Saudi Arabia at a strategic interface of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

The struggle between authoritarian president Abdulla Yameen and exiled former president and onetime political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed, a staunch critic of Chinese and Saudi interests, has a direct bearing on the future of the two countries’ significant investment that has already reshaped the archipelago’s social and political life.

The struggle also involves Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the politician who served longest as the country’s leader, Mr. Gayoom’s son-in-law, Mohamed Nadheem, and senior figures in the judiciary, including Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed. All were detained last week on charges of corruption and attempting to overthrow the government.

Mr. Yameen, in what United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein dubbed an “all-out assault on democracy,” declared the state of emergency after the Supreme Court ordered the release from prison of opposition politicians and their retrial. The state emergency, gives the government sweeping powers to make arrests, search and seize property, and restrict freedom of assembly.

The court ruling appeared to enhance Mr. Nasheed’s chances of challenging Mr. Yameen in elections scheduled for later this year by giving the opposition a majority in the country’s legislative assembly.

Politics in the Maldives, a strategically located 820-kilometre-long chain of atolls with a population of 420,000 that is best known as a tourism hotspot threatened with demise by climate change, are convoluted. Mr. Gayoom is Mr. Yameen’s half-brother and opposed to the president together with Mr. Nasheed, who unseated Mr. Gayoom in the country’s first democratic elections in 2008.

Mr. Yameen, who came to power in 2013 in a disputed election that opponents say was rigged and has since been accused of eroding democracy, allowing Islamic militancy to flourish, cracking down on dissent and jailing opposition leaders, has been amenable to Chinese and Saudi interests that analysts believe could lead to the establishment of military bases in the archipelago.

China sees the islands as a node in its “string of pearls” – a row of ports on key trade and oil routes linking the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East – while for Saudi Arabia, the atolls also have the advantage of lying a straight three-hour shot from the coast of regional rival and arch-foe, Iran.

The possible building of Chinese and/or Saudi military bases in the Maldives would complement the independent development of both nations’ military outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea.

They “want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard trade routes – their oil routes – to their new markets. To have strategic installations, infrastructure,” Mr. Nasheed charged last year.

The United States. through its Sri Lanka-based ambassador, and India have primarily sought to counter China’s growing influence by pressuring on Mr. Yameen to adhere to democratic principles. Mr. Nasheed was in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo when the state of emergency was declared and like incarcerated Judge Saeed, who was appointed by Mr. Nasheed, has maintained contact with Indian authorities.

Mr. Yameen’s election in 2013 derailed negotiations with the United States for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that would have tightened military cooperation with the Maldives and given the US military greater access to the archipelago. A return to power by Mr. Nasheed, who in 2009 became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, would have likely revived the negotiations.

Mr. Yameen, in a further turn towards China, in 2016 withdrew the Maldives from the Commonwealth of Nations after the association of former British colonies threatened to suspend it for chipping away at democratic institutions.

Saudi Arabia sees its soft power in the Maldives as a way of convincing China it is the kingdom rather than Iran that is the key link in China’s Belt and Road initiative that aims to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through Chinese-funded infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia, to lay the ground for the investment, has in recent years funded religious institutions in the Maldives and offered scholarships for students wanting to pursue religious studies at the kingdom’s ultra-conservative universities in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The funding has pushed the Maldives towards greater intolerance and public piety. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.

The Maldives is, moreover, believed to have contributed more Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq on a per-capita basis than any other country that was not a party to the conflicts.

The Saudis, despite being bitterly opposed to the Islamic State, have had, according to Mr. Nasheed, “a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold.”

Messrs. Nasheed and Gayoom have urged India to intervene to force Mr. Yameen to release the judges and other political prisoners. Mr. Nasheed went a step further by calling on India to deploy a “physical presence” in the archipelago. India, which rarely intervenes in the affairs of foreign countries, helped put down an attempted coup in the Maldives in the 1980s.

In a statement, India advised Mr. Yameen to abide by the rule of law. “In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the court,” the statement said.

The US State Department charged that “President Yameen has systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure, deprived elected members of parliament of their right to represent their voters in the legislature, revised laws to erode human rights… and weakened the institutions of government.”

Mr. Yameen, backed by China and Saudi Arabia, and in the absence of more strident Indian and/or US action, is likely to maintain the upper hand. He appears to enjoy the support of his military and police despite the sacking of the police commission immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency. To drive the point home, state television showed pictures of military and police officers pledging to sacrifice their lives “in the defense of the lawful government.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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South Asia

What to do with Pakistani militant Hafez Saeed? Pakistan and China grope for ambiguity

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Recent remarks by several senior Pakistani officials suggest that Pakistan and China are groping with how to deal with globally designated Pakistani militant Hafez Saeed as the South Asian nation gears up for elections expected in July and risks being next month put on an international terrorism finance and money laundering watchlist.

The Pakistani-Chinese dilemma stems from a China-backed Pakistani refusal to fully implement designations of Hafez Saeed by the United Nations Security Council and the US Treasury.

The United States has put a $10 million bounty on the head of Mr. Saeed, who is believed to lead the outlawed militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as well as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an alleged LeT front, and is suspected of being the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed.

Pakistan has repeatedly put Mr. Saaed under house arrest, only to release him on court orders that asserted that there was insufficient evidence against him. The government has half-heartedly sought to seize Jamaat-ud-Dawa assets and prevent it from collecting donations through its charity arm, Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation.

Pakistan’s election commission has so far refused to register a political party established by Jamaat-ud-Dawa in advance of the elections. The refusal would not prevent party members from running as independents.

To reduce focus on Mr. Saaed, a senior aide to Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that Chinese President Xi Jinping had asked Mr. Abbasi during a meeting on the side lines of last month’s Boao Forum to explore relocating Mr. Saaed to a Middle Eastern country.

“At a 35-minute meeting, at least 10 minutes of the discussion dealt with Saeed. The Chinese President was keen on pressing the Prime Minister to find an early solution to keep Saeed away from the limelight,” The Hindu quoted the aide as saying.

In separate remarks, Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for Pakistan’s intelligence service, Inter Services Intelligence, told Indian Express that “anything (Mr. Saeed) does, other than violence, is good. There is a process in Pakistan for anyone to participate in politics. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has its rules and laws. If he (Mr. Saeed) fulfils all those requirements that is for the ECP to decide.”

The divergent proposals to either remove Mr. Saeed from the limelight or mainstream him by integrating him into the political process are unlikely to satisfy either the United Nations or the United States.

They are also unlikely to prevent the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global financial watchdog that monitors the funding of political violence and money laundering, from next month putting Pakistan on its watchlist.

The FATF action could negatively affect the Pakistan economy. Pakistan risks downgrading by multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as well as by international credit rating agencies Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch.

Mr. Xi’s suggestion to Mr. Abbasi reflects Chinese ambivalence towards those Pakistani militants that both Islamabad and Beijing see as useful tools to keep India off balance. China protected Mr. Saeed from UN designation prior to the Mumbai attacks and has since prevented another Pakistani militant, Masood Azhar, from being designated by the Security Council.

At the same time, China refrained in February from shielding Pakistan from censorship by FATF.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson nonetheless argued at the time that “in recent years, Pakistan has made important progress in actively strengthening financial regulations to combat terror financing… China highly recognises that and hopes all relevant parties of the international community could arrive at an objective and fair conclusion on that.”

Implementing Mr. Xi’s proposal to remove Mr. Saeed from the limelight is easier said than done. Its hard to see what Middle Eastern nation would risk international criticism by granting Mr. Saeed asylum without tacit approval by the United States and/or the United Nations. By the same token, its unlikely that either would agree to the scheme.

Similarly, neither the UN nor the United States are likely to be persuaded by a belief within the Pakistani military that the best way of blunting militancy that has over the decades been woven into the fabric of significant segments of the armed forces, intelligence and society is by mainstreaming militants and integrating them into the political process.

Ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif kicked up a storm when he earlier this month appeared to confirm the pervasiveness of militancy by suggesting that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks had been supported by Pakistan.

“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it. We could have already been at seven per cent growth (in GDP), but we are not,” Mr. Sharif said.

The remarks by the Pakistani officials suggest that both Pakistan and China are attempting to square circles.

Pakistan needs to be seen as cracking down on militancy while considering the domestic influence of ultra-conservative religious groups as well as seemingly misguided beliefs that support for anti-Indian militants serves its purpose.

For its part, China’s justification of its hardhanded crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang as a bid to counter jihadism and nationalism among, Uighurs, a Turkic people, is weakened by its reluctance to be equally firm in countering militants in Pakistan.

The problem for both countries is that 1 + 1 = 2, whichever way one looks at it.

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How the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal affects India

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Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini & Sandeep Sachdeva*

While India was guarded in it’s response to the withdrawal of US from the Iran Nuclear Deal, it surely realizes the implications of the US withdrawal. Iran is India’s third largest source of crude oil (after Iraq and Saudi Arabia) . Between April 2017 and January 2018, New Delhi imported well over 18 million tonnes of crude oil.

New Delhi has also invested in the development of the Chabahar Port Project, which will provide India, access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. This project is extremely important for India, since it will help in bypassing Pakistan, which has continuously kept India out of the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA). During Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s Iran visit in May 2016, India had signed an agreement, committing 500 Million USD for the development of Chabahar. During Modi’s visit,  a trilateral transport and transit partnership was also signed between India, Afghanistan and Iran.

In February 2018, during Iranian President Rouhani’s visit  to India, a lease agreement was signed between India and Iran. The lease agreement gave operational control of Phase 1 of Chabahar Port (Shahid Beheshti port) to India. The Modi, Hassan Rouhani Joint statement mentioned the need for making Chabahar part of INSTC project and PM Modi further emphasised that “We will support the construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link, so that Chabahar gateway’s potential could be fully utilised.”

Here it would be pertinent to point out, that to enhance connectivity with Afghanistan, India has also set up an India Afghan Air Corridor, two flights are currently operational; one connecting Mumbai with Kabul, and another which connects Delhi with Kabul.

Indian hopes

For the time being, New Delhi has rested its hopes on the fact, that European countries are trying to keep the deal intact, and US will also not impose sanctions on allies, including India, for engaging with Iran. Defence Secretary James Mattis in a Congressional hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee, had categorically stated,  that the US should be careful with regard to imposing sanctions against allies, under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Mattis said, that allies like India should be provided a national security waiver, against imposition of sanctions for the purchase of S-400 air defence missile system from Russia.

A number of US Congressmen and Senators too have echoed Mattis’ views saying that India is valuable ally and should be exempted from sanctions

What India needs to be cautious about

While India does have time to react to the sanctions re-imposed, and the fact that European countries are keen to keep the deal alive are important. Recent statements by the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton saying that Europe will not be immune from sanctions, and would ultimately fall in line needs to be closely watched.

Said Bolton in an interview with ABC’sThis Week:“Europeans are going to face the effective US sanctions — already are, really — because much of what they would like to sell to Iran involves US technology, for which the licenses will not be available.”

Bolton also stated, that these countries will ultimately realise that it is in their interest to go along with the US.

Earlier US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell advised Germany to re-consider business ties with Iran:‘German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately”.

New Delhi needs to strike a balancing act between Iran and US, but it also needs to have a clear plan of action to deal with US sanctions against Iran. In the past few years, India has successfully managed to balance relations between Iran and US, and Iran and Israel. Given the recent sanctions and the hawkish approach of the Trump Administration, it may be tough.

China factor

In the meanwhile, New Delhi would be well advised to follow closely China’s reaction to the withdrawal of US from JCPOA. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited three important countries Russia, China and Europe to save the JCPOA. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “it was hard-earned  deal, and China will take an objective, fair and responsible attitude, keep communication and cooperation with all parties concerned, and continue to work to maintain the deal”.

The China factor doesn’t end here for India. Off late, ties between India and China have witnessed an improvement, during PM Modi’s recent China visit, it was decided. that both countries will undertake a joint project in Afghanistan. In recent months, there seem to be some indicators of lowering of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad as well.  Could, Beijing get New Delhi and Islamabad to discuss the issue of  transit trade to Afghanistan?  An opinion piece, ‘Pakistan’s military reaches out to India’, published in RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) discusses the willingness of Pakistan to discuss this issue, but India had turned down the offer in October 2017. Maybe New Delhi, could explore this option, and Beijing could support such an effort.

Conclusion

In conclusion, New Delhi will need to handle the current situation with great dexterity, while US is an important strategic partner, India has also got an opportunity to send an unequivocal message to Washington, that its own interests are paramount, and it will not blindly follow any one camp. In spite of all the challenges and upheavals likely to result from Trump’s decision, this also provides a golden opportunity for re-shaping the narrative within South Asia.

*Sandeep Sachdeva, Independent Foreign Policy Analyst

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Ex-Pakistani Prime Minister puts Pakistani military and China on the spot

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif kicked up a storm when he earlier this month seemingly admitted that Pakistan had supported militants who attacked multiple targets in Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people.

Mr. Sharif’s admission, which he has since tried to walk back, put a finger on Pakistan’s controversial policy of selective support of militant groups at a sensitive time. Pakistan is gearing up for elections that would secure its third consecutive handover of civilian political power.

Mr. Sharif’s remarks, moreover, stirred up a hornet’s nest because Pakistan is likely to next month be put on a watch list by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global financial watchdog that monitors the funding of political violence and money laundering worldwide.

The remarks also put China in a difficult position. China has been pressuring Pakistan to crack down on militants, particularly in the troubled province of Balochistan, the crown jewel in its Belt and Road-related $50 billion plus infrastructure investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Yet, at the same time, China has at Pakistan’s behest prevented the United Nations Security Council from declaring Masood Azhar, believed to have been responsible for an attack in 2016 on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station, as a globally designated terrorist.

The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Mr. Sharif’s made his remarks as China was building up its military infrastructure in Pakistan. The build-up is occurring against the backdrop of Pakistan risking being involuntarily sucked into potential attempts to destabilize Iran if Saudi Arabia/and or the United States were to use Balochistan as a staging ground.

In line with a standard practice in Pakistan that has repeatedly seen groups that are outlawed resurrecting themselves under new names, Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), the banned group believed to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks, and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be an LeT front, are  rebranding under a new name and as a political party, Milli Muslim League, that would compete in the forthcoming election.

The League is headed by Hafez Saaed, a former LeT leader, who was last year released from house arrest despite having been declared a designated global terrorist by the Security Council and the US Treasury, which put a $10 billion bounty on his head. China vetoed Mr. Saeed’s designation by the UN prior to the Mumbai attacks.

Activists, even though the party was last month designated by the US Treasury, are likely to run as independents in the election if the government maintains its rejection of the party’s registration.

So are operatives of Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, a front for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned, virulently anti-Shiite group that long enjoyed support from Saudi Arabia and operates multiple militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that have witnessed an injection of funds from the kingdom in the last two years.

“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it. We could have already been at seven per cent growth (in GDP), but we are not,” Mr. Sharif said, referring to stalled Mumbai attacks-related trials in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.

Taking Mr. Sharif’s comments a step further, prominent journalist and author Ahmed Rashid asserted that “the deep state of Pakistan is supporting the banned outfits as it has done in the past. This game should be stopped, and the government should show its commitment and sincerity in disarming these groups and not to allow them to enter into politics.”

Former Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf, in an apparent manifestation of links between the circles close to the military and hardliners, said prior to the designation by the US announced that he was discussing an alliance with Mr. Saeed’s league.

Speaking on Pakistani television, Mr. Musharraf pronounced himself “the greatest supporter of LeT… Because I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir,” Mr. Musharraf said.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence service are believed to favour integration of militants into the political process as a way of reducing violence and militancy in a country in which religious ultra-conservatism and intolerance has been woven into the fabric of branches of the state and significant segments of society.

Critics charge that integration is likely to fail in Pakistan. “Incorporating radical Islamist movements into formal political systems may have some benefits in theory… But the structural limitations in some Muslim countries with prominent radical groups make it unlikely that these groups will adopt such reforms, at least not anytime soon… While Islamabad wants to combat jihadist insurgents in Pakistan, it also wants to maintain influence over groups that are engaged in India and Afghanistan,” said Kamran Bokhari, a well-known scholar of violent extremism.

Citing the example of a militant Egyptian group that formed a political party to participate in elections, Mr. Bokhari argued that “though such groups remain opposed to democracy in theory, they are willing to participate in electoral politics to enhance their influence over the state. Extremist groups thus become incorporated into existing institutions and try to push radical changes from within the system.”

Chinese ambiguity about Pakistani policy goes beyond shielding Mr. Azhar from being designated. A Chinese-Pakistani draft plan last year identified as risks to CPEC “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

Security has since improved substantially in significant parts of Pakistan. The question, however, is whether integration of militants into the political process would stabilize Pakistani politics in the absence of a concerted effort to counter mounting ultra-conservative religious fervour in the country. It may be too early to judge, but so far the answer has to be no.

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