Cajoling act

US woos Maldives with SOFA

As Maldives prepares for Presidential election in September, a fierce debate is going on in the Maldivian political circles about the US offer to sign a Status of Forces Agreement.

With the US focusing its strategy towards Asia Pacific by promoting its new Rebalancing Asia earlier called Pivot to Asia policy among the Asian powers, it seems to have chosen Maldives as one of the pivots on which it will deploy its military facilities.

With China also making aggressive moves to lure Maldives in its strategic grip by offering substantial grants and assisting in many other developmental activities, the Maldivian archipelago seem to be turning into hot bed of super power rivalry.

The ex-Maldivian President Mamoon Abudul Gayoom, who ruled with iron hand for 30 years and aligned only with India, has recently said during his India visit in early June, 2013 that “it is not good to make Maldives a hotbed of rivalries between superpowers. We do not want to be aligned to the west or the east.”

But the way Maldives is being courted by big powers the Maldivian leaders will not take long to succumb to either of the powers.

During his India visit in June, Gayoom voiced his opposition to the US offer and said that Maldives has been a member of NAM and will remain nonaligned. In the forthcoming elections his party has fielded his younger brother as the prospective Presidential candidate while the current President, Muhammad Waheed and the past president Muhammad Nasheed are strong claimants to the Presidential palace in Male.

The US had signed “Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement” (ACSA) with the previous government of President Mohamed Nasheed, in 2010 which permit the US forces to use Maldivian airport and sea port facilities.

So the present Waheed government has taken a cue from the Nasheed policy and has projected this as an excuse to discuss the Status of Forces Agreement with the US. Since Nasheed himself signed the ACSA agreement, he may be inclined to sign the SOFA with US, if he returns to power. After he was dethroned in January last year, he had disclosed how he saw on his table the draft of a proposal for defence cooperation agreement with China which he ignored.

Decisive factor

So the fate of the SOFA will depend on the outcome of the triangular contest between Waheed, Nasheed and Yameen Abdullah the younger brother of Gayoom during forthcoming elections. During Gayoom regime China had tried to cajole his government to hand over an island to China for developing a tourist resort, as China has emerged as the largest tourist senders for Maldives. It has also been reported that China wanted to use one of its islands for rest and recreation and refueling of its submarines.

World powers are eyeing Maldives because of its strategic location near major sea lanes. Nearly three fourth of the world’s sea borne petroleum trade passes through Indian Ocean choke points out of which 40 percent passes through the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz.

The Malacca Strait handles 35 percent share and eight percent passes through the Bab El Mandab strait which is at the base of the Red Sea. Those who depend on these sea lanes for energy and other vital supplies would feel threatened if other rival nation has naval facilities on Maldives, from where naval and air operations could be launched.

Since China is the leading importer of petroleum from these sea lanes, Chinese strategists have been eyeing Maldives as staging post to counter its military rivals. No wonder that the Americans have made a very smart move to engage with the present Waheed government to enter into the SOFA agreement with them.

However the pro Chinese elements in the Maldivian political circles have started raising the concerns and the American diplomats are trying to explain.

“We do not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives.” The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia told PTI in an interview. He explained, “Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is an effort to provide a framework to the ongoing joint military exercises that the US has with Maldives.”

Since there is a concern in the strategic circles of India and Sri Lanka also, Blake said, “I want to reassure everybody that this does not imply some new uptick in military co-operation or certainly does not apply any new military presence. It would just be to support our ongoing activities.”

Presently the Americans are maintaining a huge military base in Indian Ocean at Diego Garcia and if Maldives agrees, it would prove to be another jewel in American overseas deployment.

The legal framework

The Maldivian web media is already saying that SOFA will provide a legal framework for a virtually unrestrained US presence, including military bases, in the archipelago of 1,192 islands.

The draft of the SOFA proposal has been accessed by the Maldivian media which says that “US personnel shall be accorded the privileges, exemptions and immunities equivalent to those accorded to diplomats under Vienna Conventions.” This means that control and jurisdiction over US personnel will be in the hands of the Pentagon which will be immune from Maldivian law. All US personnel stationed in Maldives under the SOFA will enjoy freedom of movement and access to agreed facilities.

The draft also says that aircraft, vehicles and vessels will have unrestrained entry and exit rights and move freely within territory and territorial waters of Maldives and will not be subject to taxation or inspection. The draft also says that the US shall be responsible for the construction, development, operations, and maintenance cost of agreed facilities and areas provided for the exclusive use of its forces.

The US forces will maintain its telecommunication systems, along with access to airports, sea ports and agreed facilities and areas. And all disputes shall be resolved through consultation, and shall not be referred to any national or international court.

Before stationing its forces in Afghanistan the US had entered into similar agreement with the Afghan government, but the US officials maintain that US has similar agreements with over 100 countries. Trying to allay India’s concerns, Blake told PTI, “I would like to reassure all our friends in India, what it is and what it isn’t. We have status of forces agreements with more than 100 nations around the world. And these are basically agreements we have with partners where we have significant military activities, typically exercises,” Blake referred to the Coconut Grove annual maritime military exercise with Maldives and said that SOFA helps to provide framework for those kind of cooperative activities.

The US claims that India has been consulted on the proposed SOFA with Maldives. But it is not clear if India willingly gave consent to go ahead to the US authorities to conclude the agreement.

Considering China’s efforts to woo Maldives for deeper defence cooperation as the two countries have already signed defence cooperation agreements, India probably chose between lesser imminent threat, but even US positioning its forces almost 400 kms from the Kerala coast, would be long term strategic irritant for India.

India will have to seriously engage with Maldivian government after September elections to ensure that Maldives maintain equidistance both from US and China and revive the strategic partnership which existed during the early Gayoom days, whose regime India saved in 1988 by launching Operation Cactus.

Since Maldives lies in India’s immediate vicinity, Indian strategic planners must devise a tactics to retain Maldives in India’s strategic fold. It would be considered India’s diplomatic and strategic failure if Maldives allows either of the two powers to come within India’s striking distance from the sea side.