Maldives and India’s Neighborhood First policy

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PM Narendra Modi with Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Photo: Twitter/Raveesh Kumar

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 9 July 2019

The fact that the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi preferred the Prime Minister’s state visit abroad to commence with the Maldives (from 8 to 9 June 2019) after being re-elected in 2019 underlined the significance of the small archipelago South Asia country to India’s foreign policy in general and neighborhood policy in particular. It is worth-recalling that Prime Minister Modi had attended Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s inaugural ceremony in Male in November 2018, and President Solih chose India as the destination of his first visit abroad in December 2018 after assuming office. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the island country is significant for a number of reasons. First, despite lows in India-Maldives relations and tilting of the island country toward China under the former President Abdulla Yameen, the Indian Prime Minister could not visit the country during his first term in office by pending his visit on the conditions that the Maldivian President had to address the deteriorating domestic political milieu. Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, the tour of the Indian Ocean region then was considered pivotal part of India’s neighborhood first policy which can be inferred from the fact that the Prime Minister was first to visit Seychelles after a gap of 34 years and Sri Lanka after 28 years. However, the Indian government appeared to be a bystander to the unfolding political drama within the Maldives and to its drifting toward Chinese influence during the preceding government. Even while India’s neighborhood first policy received a setback and appeared to meander without proper direction during much of Prime Minister Modi’s first term, India was cautious to the call of intervention from the Maldivian leaders in the opposition camp which demanded ousting of the Yameen regime and releasing of the democratic leaders from jail. India was aware that the Abdulla regime and its actions were not results of a coup like what happened in 1988 when India launched a successful military mission in the Maldives exemplifying a commendable effort by New Delhi in dislodging an authoritarian regime in the neighborhood. In this context, Prime Minster Modi’s last month visit to the archipelago state would have restored India’s as well as its neighboring states’ faith in New Delhi’s policy priority attached to its neighborhood.   

Second, the visit was crucial in resetting bilateral ties between India and the Maldives in substantive terms whereas earlier visits by the leaders of respective countries enhanced the symbolic aspect of relations. The present visit was not only characterized by the signing of six significant agreements, there were substantive bilateral level talks which reaffirmed cooperation and placed the bilateral relationship on a firm-footing. Third, the agreements will go a long way in boosting India’s confidence in the key areas of defence and security and in insuring against Chinese sway in the Indian Ocean region. India-Maldives Joint Statement during the State Visit of Prime Minister to Maldives reads: “The two leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean Region, and to strengthen coordination in enhancing maritime security in the region, through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information, and capacity building. The two leaders acknowledged the recent joint exercise Ekatha conducted in April 2019. Both sides agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation on issues of common concern including piracy, terrorism, organised crime, drugs and human trafficking. They agreed to set up a Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism, Countering Violent Extremism and De-radicalisation”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/31418/IndiaMaldives_Joint_Statement_during_the_State_Visit_of_Prime_Minister_to_Maldives, June 08, 2019.

The preceding Maldivian leadership not only sought India to remove its gifted helicopters and crew from the island, indicating strategic dimension to Chinese activities in the country, China and the Maldives announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo in the beginning of 2018. There were speculations that China would build a military port in the Maldives as well. The recently concluded visit would ensure that while the government led by Solih may find it difficult to roll back all the Chinese projects; it would insist the activities being limited to commercial purposes alone and alleviate Indian concerns. Former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen pushed the island country into the Chinese orbit of influence by seeking China’s financial assistance, candidly supporting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and preferring Chinese companies in undertaking major infrastructure projects.

He further signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with China towards the end of 2017 and disallowed Indian workers from entering the country which kept India’s relations with Maldives peregrinating aimlessly. The Maldives’ imports from China had increased to 18% compared to India’s 11% from January to June 2018 indicating dwarfing of New Delhi’s influence in the country. India undertook course-correction measures announcing an assistance of $1.4 billion through a credit line and budgetary support to the Maldives once the new government under the leadership of Solih came to power. This was significant in view of the island country’s indebtedness to China. China’s loans to the Maldives were estimated to be around $3.4 billion and to repay it Male’s government has to spend 15 per cent of its budget from 2020 onwards as has been argued by former Maldivian President Mohammad Nasheed. The Maldives has been seeking India’s financial assistance as one of the ways to address this discrepancy in economy and helping Maldives in financial terms is considered by India as one of most effective ways of addressing the country’s possible drift toward China. In this context, India-Maldives Joint Statement underlines: “Both leaders welcomed the signing of the US$800 million Dollar Line of Credit Agreement in March 2019, for assisting the Maldives to achieve sustainable social and economic development. The leaders stressed the need to work towards expeditious implementation of people-centric and socio-economic projects including in areas of water and sanitation for many islands, Addu city urban development and support for SME Finance Corporation under the US$ 800 million Dollar Line of Credit Agreement. They also decided to work on other projects in the pipeline including in sectors such as port development, health, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and energy”.  

As the joint statement between the two countries suggests India would assist the Maldivian government in two key areas such as stemming the tide of growing Islamist radicalization and institutionalized corruption that gathered momentum during the preceding government. Indicating to forge close strategic ties with India, Maldives defence chief Abdullah Shamaal not only sought to replicate the Indian model in improving the relations between its defence forces and the civilian leadership, he argued that India was set to play the key role of a “security guarantor” for peace and stability within the greater Indian Ocean region during his visit to India. 

Then, this time while New Delhi invited member-countries of the BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) grouping on Prime Minister’s swearing in ceremony and indicated act-east thrust in India’s foreign policy, the Maldives is not a member of the grouping which included South Asian countries namely- Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan and therefore choosing the island country for Prime Minister’s first state visit suggests that the bilateral relationship between the two countries will move ahead in strategic terms independent of India’s east-ward stride. Further, the recent visit to Maldives conforms to the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) Doctrine outlined by Prime Minister Modi in 2015 which aimed at keeping the Indian Ocean region peaceful and secure.

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