Revisiting the Maldives’ India First Policy

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by Bawa Singh  and   Sandeep Singh  22 December 2018


The recent three-day official visit to India (December 2018) by the Maldivian President Solih, only comes within a month after taking over the reins of the nation. The Indian PM Modi has been invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony of President Ibrahim Solih. These steps of the newly elected President Solih have given signals that he is committed to improving the bilateral relations with India. Under the previous regime of former President Yameen, the bilateral relations had become more strained as he shown more pro-China tilt and harbouring anti-India stances. The newly elected Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih committed to attune the Maldivian foreign policy coupled with India First Policy. Now, the question is how India could maintain this goodwill by recalibrating its neighbourhood policy?

India and Maldives Relations

Historically, India has been a financial and security provider to the Maldives. Since independence (1965), India-Maldives relations have remained more or less stable except for the brief period under the regime of President Abdulla Yameen (2013-18) which can best be described as “pro-China tilt.” Both countries have been sharing political, diplomatic, economic and strategic relations since India recognized Maldives’ independence since 1965. For the Maldives, India is not only a provider of financial aid but rather also as a security provider.

Despite being a small nation, Maldives’ central location between the Strait of Malacca and Gulf of Aden is strategically crucial for India to keep watch over the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Indian PM Narendra Modi called it an “a valued partner in the Indian Ocean Neighbourhood.” Economically, they had signed the comprehensive agreement (1981) providing for import-export of essential commodities such as agriculture, poultry products, textiles, medicines, sand, industrial produce, scrap metals, etc. Both countries are signatories to the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).

Regarding cultural exchanges, Hindi commercial films, exchange of cultural troupes and popularity of Indian music used to give a strong foundation to their bilateral relations.

Notwithstanding having good relations, it is said that their bilateral relations have not been without the political and strategic irritants. The defeat of President Mohamed Nasheed in 2013 and the beginning of President Yameen led to a dramatic political shift in the bilateral relations. Given the authoritative regime of Yameen (2013-18) and his pro-China tilt, the Indo-Maldives relations had reached the lowest ebb. Despite the pursuance of ‘Neighbourhood First Policy,’ PM Modi did not visit the Maldives due to the former Yameen’s anti-India stances. President Yameen did not heed to the Indian government’s advice to put the house in order during the political turmoil (2015). In this background, Prime Minister Modi had canceled his visit to the island nation. Haider (2015) had argued that Yameen-led political crisis in the Maldives had made this visit difficult for the PM Modi. These moves had created a wide rift between the two countries. The respective policies like Neighbourhood First and India First Policy have been remained dormant given the Yameen ani-Indian stances.

India and Maldives Under President Yameen (2013-18)

President Yameen’s anti-India stances and pro-China tilt had left drastic impacts on the Indo-Maldives bilateral relations. A former pro-Indian President Mohamed Nasheed’s imprisonment in 2015 had created political chaos in the country which discouraged Indian political leadership to further cement relations with Male. For the first time, President Yameen did not accept India’s invitation regarding biennial eight-day naval exercise (2018) in Italy. For the legally working Indian community in the Maldives, he rejected their visa renewals without mentioning any reasons.
To use his free hand for Chinese policy, the former president Yameen crushed his opposition by jailing or exiling the opposition leaders. He sentenced the former President Nasheed for thirteen-year jail using the Anti-Terrorism Act of Maldives. He also threatened the constitutional values of the country by declaring an emergency (5 December 2018), promoting radicalization, refusing to abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court by arresting the judges, and breaking parliament laws. India urged Mr. Yameen to abide the law of the land; instead, he lobbied for Chinese assistance to defend against any external intervention. On the other hand, China had supported Maldives on the condition that the latter would enter into Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the former. Yameen also promised of leasing of an island to China against the spirit of the constitution.
In contrast, the Maldivian have always been looked towards the Indian intervention whenever they used to come up political crisis and natural calamities such as the 1988 coup, tsunami, and state emergency in 2015, etc. The international community has appreciated India’s role in maintaining stability and development in the Maldives. However, during the recent political crisis (2015-16), India kept away from intervening in the Maldives given the Maldives’ steady drift towards China.

What India assumes its major concern areas in the Indian Ocean are Maldives’s growing relations with China. The male is not only a strategic partner of Beijing but also a part of China’s Maritime Silk Road after Pakistan. During his regime, Mr. Yameen tilted towards China for mega assistance. He drew substantial Chinese investment in infrastructure projects by sidelining India which accounted for US$ 830 million. This has increased Chinese tourism in the Maldives which accounts for 21 percent of the country’s total visitors in 2017. During this time, Chinese investment accounted for 70 percent of total external aid in the Maldives which recorded the fastest pace in the Maldivian history. The former president Nasheed expressed his concern over Chinese investment that it would push the Maldives into Chinese ‘debt trap’ as the latter was done in another littoral country- Sri Lanka. Currently, China’s loans to the Maldives is stood at the value of about $1.5 billion, which is considered to be one-fourth of its GDP.

Moreover, Yameen had given priority to China over India for the free trade and transit as it has signed FTA with Beijing. Thus, Yameen’s regime remained a helping factor for China to amplify its influence in India’s maritime domain which served as a deterrent to Indo-Maldives relationship. The recent victory of President Solih’s and his pro-India attitude are being seen as a positive step toward India-Maldives relations.

India and Maldives: Resetting the Ties

The incumbent President Yameen was defeated by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the election 2018. He had secured around 89 percent Maldivian mandate. In his inaugural address, Solih had promised to have better relations with India. The invitation extended to PM Modi for swearing-in-ceremony and a reciprocal visit even within a month to India is assumed to be a very positive step to improve the bilateral relations. It is conceived that it would bring dramatic changes in the internal governance in general and in the Maldivian foreign policy in particular. Rajagopalan (2018) in the Diplomat demonstrated that internally the incumbent government has released five jailed parliamentarians and remaining would be released soon. Externally, the new government would renegotiate or cancel some of the Chinese projects to pull the archipelago nation out of the latter’s debt trap. Although, the Chinese Foreign Ministry congratulated the President Solih government, but also raised concerns in strong words that “Whether the cooperation between China and the Maldives can work out or bring benefits to the two countries is all up to what the two countries’ people say. It cannot be smeared by certain individuals.”

It can be said that the election results are likely to alter the geopolitical calculations among regional powers in the Indian Ocean as the Maldives would try to maintain a balancing act between its traditional partner India and newly developmental partner China. After the new government came into power, the Maldives and India are likely to revisit their relations which faced setbacks during the former president Yameen’s regime. The recent official visit (December 2018) to India by the Maldivian President Solih has been made towards resetting the ties between the two governments. The visit comes nearly a month after PM Modi attended the swearing-in ceremony of Ibrahim Solih in Male which signals that both countries are committed to repairing their strained relations under the previous regime. As per the MEA’s press release, the Indian government made Solih’s stay-arrangements in the Rashtrapati Bhawan with the Indian President. This showed closer ties and mutual respect between the two governments. Both the governments agreed for creating institutional linkages and to enhance cooperation in the fields of health, mutual legal assistance on criminal matters, investment promotion, human resource development, and tourism.

Solih said that India and Maldives have been in long-standing trade partnership which he wants to continue. With PM Modi, he had a delegation-level talk on visa-legacy norms for easy access to health and education facilities in India. India also announced a massive credit line for Maldives development. The President Solih has also shown firm commitment by stating that, “the Maldives is committed to providing protection and legal cover to the foreign investments in the Indian Ocean Island.” During this visit, both countries signed four MoUs in the areas of visa arrangements, cultural cooperation, cooperation to improve the ecosystem for agribusiness and collaboration in the field of Information & Communications Technology and Electronics.

Under the visionary leadership of President Solih, shown commitment, and interest towards “India First Policy.” During meeting with Indian delegations, Maldives’ leadership agreed on preserving peace and security in the IOR and assured of “being mindful of each other’s concerns and aspirations for the stability of the region.” The terrorism and radicalization are major problems against which both governments are committed to increasing cooperation within the region and elsewhere. Thus, a lot of complementarities in their relations have been highlighted during President Solih’s visit which entails greater implications if they sustain this enthusiasm.

Over the years, India has been considering the Maldives as a part of its sphere of influence. China, on the other hand, sees the archipelago nation as a cog in its “Belt Road Initiatives” to rejuvenate ancient Maritime Silk route. During Solih’s visit to India, PM Modi asserted, “We will not allow our countries to be used for activities which can be harmful to each other’s interests.” The PM Modi has also announced US$1.4 billion financial aid for infrastructure development by offering itself an additional alternative to China. Solih also described India as “Maldives’s closest friend and also one of the most important trading partners.” Both leaders committed to enhancing cooperation in “combating terrorism both within the region and elsewhere.” Thus, many experts see this trip as a Maldives’s come-back to India, after being trapped in China’s debt diplomacy.

Thus, it clears that the Indo-Maldives relations had become strained under the regime of former president Yameen. On the other hand, he took the Maldives and China relations to new heights. The First Policy and Neighbourhood Policy had become dormant. Out of this frustration of the political leadership and people, the Maldives elected Solih as the new president in election 2018. He invited PM Modi in the swearing-in-ceremony and paid an official visit to India. A long list of agreements has been signed to reinvigorate the bilateral relations. A new chapter in the bilateral relations has been started. But the question is how to maintain goodwill generated out of the recent political changes in both sides. For this, India needs to work on what Maldivian’s perception about the democratic regime in the archipelago nation rather than pressing its democratic values. For it, India may uphold the aspirations of Maldivian citizens and build the trust among them. Although India cannot replace Chinese investment in the Maldives, it can gain its lost ground by repairing relations with Male through diplomatic and strategic realignments. The Maldivian debt trap would remain an excellent challenge for India’s Maldivian policy. India has to find out ways how it can help the Maldives out of its debt trap. It is the only way by which it can ensure Maldives India First Policy.