Saturday, May 4, 2013

Rumors abound regarding a potential SOFA agreement between the United States and The Maldives

     When most people think of the Maldives, pristine beaches, world-class scuba diving, and its threatened existence due to global warming tend to come to mind.  Yet it is the issue of a rumored and under-the-radar Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and the Maldives that is perhaps thrusting  this small island nation into an increasingly competitive game of risk between regional and world powers.

On April 24th, Maldivian journalist and human rights activist Azra Naseem posted an entry into her blog, Dhivehi Sitee, reporting on a draft agreement that she had seen in which the United States and the Maldives were reportedly close to signing. (the full copy of the draft the Azra Naseem has stated she has seen can be viewed in its entirety here).  If the stated Status of Forces Agreement (referred to hereafter as SOFA) is authentic and were to remain unchanged before both countries were to sign the document, it would entail some of  the following provisions:

*"United States personnel shall be accorded the privileges, exemptions, and immunities equivalent to those accorded to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission...."
-The document states that "United States personnel" would include members of the United States Armed Forces and civilian employees of the United States Department of Defense.  The document also states that "United States forces" means "...the entity comprising United States personnel and all property, equipment, and materiel of the United States Armed Forces present in the Republic of Maldives". 

*"United States personnel shall be authorized to wear uniforms while performing official duties and to carry arms while on duty if authorized to do so by their orders."

*"Vessels and vehicles operated by or, at the time, exclusively for the United States forces may enter, exit, and move freely within the territory and territorial seas of the Republic of Maldives..."

While SOFA's are not by any means uncommon within the United States Military structure (it currently has over 100 of them; each with varying levels of American autonomy and agreement), what makes a potential SOFA between the United States and the Maldives potentially controversial is the timing, considering the recent political upheaval in the Maldives.  In some aspects, the US approach towards a SOFA with the Maldives appears to be ripped straight out the People's Republic of China's foreign policy playbook.

A Realist Approach 

For decades, Beijing has approaches foreign relations with a certain sense of ambiguity, as it will conduct business with states that have democratic governments and strong positive human rights records (Sweden, France, Denmark, Canada) while jointly pursuing relationships with those states who have authoritarian systems and reputations of rampant human rights abuses (Sudan, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe).  With a blanket approach and deep pockets, the PRC has been able to make considerable inroads in geographic areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and the Pacific that have often been considered afterthoughts following the Cold War due to their perceived degraded strategic value.  Unlike the United States, which often attaches human rights and moves towards democratic rule a prerequisite for foreign aid (although there are glaring exceptions to this), China has no qualms about spreading its economic largesse in the name of self interest.

In the fall of 2011, China opened its new embassy in the Maldivian capital of Male, setting off alarms in both Washington and New Delhi.  Speculation was rampant within India that the PRC was looking to further solidify yet another  "friendly maritime ally in the region, following Beijing's enhanced relationships with Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Bangladesh, and Mauritius, and of course Pakistan.  Rumors also surfaced regarding China's desire to establish a naval submarine base on the Maldivian island of Marao.  During the time coinciding with the opening of the new PRC embassy in Male, Beijing also extended a $500 million dollar loan (USD) to the Maldivian government.  Overseeing these developments was Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, and the course of events the followed shortly thereafter remains shrouded in dispute.

Mohamed Nasheed 

On February 7th, 2012, President Mohamed Nasheed resigned on national television.  A mere 24 hours later, Nasheed stated that his resignation was coerced by army and police officials, and was threatened with death if he did not comply. His Vice President, Dr. Mohamad Waheed Hassan Manik was sworn in within the hour after the resignation.  The given reasons behind Nasheed's alleged resignation have remained vague.  It should be noted that prior to  Nasheed becoming  the first democratically elected President of the Maldives in thirty years, the country was under over three decades of one-party authoritarian rule.  Nasheed was also arrested and imprisoned multiple times in the 1990s, including one episode in which he claimed he was forced to "eat food mixed with glass".  It seems that an abrupt "resignation" of a Presidency that he fought decades for would not be in his nature.

Since Nasheed's resignation, there have been multiple alleged human rights abuses in the Maldives, as well as the sacking of cabinet officials from Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).  According the British newspaper The Guardian

*"Amnesty International has described events in the Maldives as a "human rights crisis", reporting widespread police brutality and arbitrary arrests"

*"Nearly 2,000 peaceful demonstrators calling for elections have been detained by security forces, many beaten and hospitalised"

A number of celebrities and British government officials have publicly condemned the current situation in the Maldives, including Ed Norton, Sir Richard Branson, and Karen Bilimoria and Eric Avebury of the United Kingdom's House of Lords.


Interestingly, the new government has appeared to be more receptive towards American overtures of a military relationship, as shown by a recent joint exercise between American Marines and the Maldivian Navy
(Although joint exercises have taken place previously on a biannual basis,  sources  say that military  contact between the two countries increased shortly after the military coup took place in 2012)

One potential reason behind the relative lack of fanfare of a potential SOFA between the countries is the sensitive political climate that remains in the Maldives.  According to Naseem's post:

"Article 77(3) of the 2008 Maldives Constitution stipulates that:
No part of the territory of the Maldives shall be given to a foreign person or party for a military purpose for any period without the approval of the People's Majlis (Parliament)"

Nasheem also goes on to state that before the SOFA can be sent to Parliament for approval, it must be endorsed by the Attorney General of the Maldives.  Adding to the intrigue, on April 10th, April Azima was "relieved of her Attorney General duties, and transferred to the post of Minister of Gender, Family, and Human Rights".  Nasheem states that the current President Waheed appointed Aishath Bishama, a young appointee who was unlikely to disagree with higher authorities.  From the perspective of the United States, it is understandable that such an agreement would be kept under the radar, as domestic and international human rights advocates and organizations would demand more answers behind such an agreement with a country who has recent questions regarding its human rights record.  With some of  its military stationed in bases throughout the world in countries with questionable human rights records (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Uzbekistan immediately come to mind), why is the United States government looking to establish yet another  military presence in a country that presently is in the midst of a political crisis in the and raise questions about its long stated goal of rewarding democracies and shunning oppressive regimes when possible?  The answer lies in the Maldives increasingly vital  geographic position.

Maldivian government officials being wowed on the carrier USS John C Stennis (3-31-2013) 

Vital Links 
Geography is the primary reason why the United States is looking to outflank China in regards to a military presence on the Maldives, and while doing so largely ignore the human rights questions within the island state.
The Gan Airfield has been strategically important since the Second World War

The Gan airfield  was administered by the United Kingdom as a military facility until 1976, when it handed over control of the Atoll to the Maldives.  It's location in the center of the Indian Ocean potentially allows for patrol aircraft to monitor wide swaths of vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. It could also serve as a base for long range bomber aircraft with proximity to the Middle East and Eastern Africa, as well as a submarine and naval vessel resupply and repair center.   The United States currently leases a base with similar purposes from England on the island of Diego Garcia.  The Diego Garcia base lies nearly 700km to the south of the Addu Atoll, but with America's lease on the island set to expire on 2016, with a deadline on renewal in 2014.  The island is also reputed to be one of America's "black site locations", a location used to interrogate high value captures, often from states targeted in the "War on Terror".


The governments of both the United States and the Maldives deny that any SOFA is imminent.  In the past two weeks both countries have issued blanket denials regarding the speculation.  There have not, however, been denials that talks have taken place in recent months.  The aggressive pace in which the United States is pursuing some sort of binding agreement, however, suggests that defense officials in Washington place a high value on having some level of a permanent military  presence within Maldivian territory.  The timing of the ouster of Mohamed Nasheed that coincided with almost immediate engagement between Washington and Male raises further questions.  While China's $500 million dollar loan offer  to the Maldives was an overt attempt by Beijing to curry favor with officials, it is not yet clear what sort of incentive the United States is prepared to offer in return for potential basing rights within the country.  What is clear, however, is that the current Administration is prepared to resort to Beijing's foreign policy blueprint of foreign relations realism, and toss aside the necessity of democracy and human rights if a situation beneficial to the United States strategic position arises.  Hans Morgenthau would be most proud.

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