Maldives has been in a virtual political turmoil and in the eye of the regional competition between the regional super powers China and India. Like the other neighbours the predilection for one or the other power for closer friendship per se seems to have become incumbent on the perceptions of the leader of Maldives. India has maintained a special and strategic relationship with the island nation but China in accordance with its “ String of Pearls” strategy has been eyeing the access to Maldivian islands to secure the desired maritime access and advantage in the Indian ocean and indeed the recently ousted Government of President Abdulla Yameen provided his Chinese friends the leeway they were looking for without realising the debt trap of “Belt and Road Initiative “ he was angling into. He negated all the norms of democratic governance and undermined the institutions in an arbitrary manner which was evident in the way he detained the judges, side-lined the lawmakers and hounded out his political rival former President Mohammed Nasheed who had to seek refuge in UK and then Sri Lanka.
But the September elections changed all that when the political fortunes of Yameen took a dive and Ibrahim Mohamed Solih emerged victorious and formed the government with the support of four other smaller parties. He became the President on November 17, after the rival claims of rigging and outlandish conspiracy theories were dismissed by the Supreme Court as baseless and without any evidence. Rest of the democratic world wanted a smooth transition too. This also changed the complex of Maldives external relations and diplomatic outreach. India was back in the reckoning.
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On his first State visit, since his surprise election, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, President of the Republic of Maldives accompanied by First Lady Fazna Ahmed visited India from December 16-18, 2018 at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Apart from the ceremonial reception and meetings with the President and Vice President he held detailed discussions with the Indian Prime Minister and major initiatives were outlined in the Joint Statement issued after the meet. During his own visit to Maldives PM Modi had assured all possible assistance to the beleaguered nation, whose economy is in dire straits and riven with a Chinese debt trap of over US$ 3bn that was incurred during the honeymoon period of former President Abdulla Yameen, ousted from his controversial rule in the recent elections.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also called on President Solih and termed the meeting as warm and productive discussions on all aspects of bilateral ties including development cooperation, human resource development and people to people exchanges. As a special honored guest President Solih stayed at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Earlier PM Modi had been invited to the inaugural ceremony by President Solih on November 17. For PM Modi it was his first visit to Maldives –in accordance with his “Neighborhood First” policy but the recent developments beginning with the ouster of former President Mohammed Nasheed and curtailment of democracy and institutions by Yameen and his overt snub to India and excessive overtures to China had kept the high level visit from India in abeyance .
But with the onset of Solih presidency the relations appear to be back to normal which is evident from the fact that Solih’s first foreign visit was to India in keeping with his “India First “policy and India’s continued commitment to the people of Maldives. In fact, the two high level visits have taken place within a span of one month. During his visit to Male, Prime Minister Modi assured the people of Maldives of India’s continued support for consolidation of democracy which is essential for peace prosperity and stability.
Apart from underscoring the resilience of the relations between the two countries they did express confidence in the renewal of the close bonds of cooperation and friendship with the election of President Solih. The leaders also agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and security in the Indian ocean by being mindful of each other’s concerns and aspirations for the stability of the region. Fight against terrorism within the region and elsewhere also became the priority for the two countries through enhanced cooperation.
After his election President Solih clearly maintained that while he would like to give priority to ties with India but will also like to maintain closer relations with other countries in the region and outside for serving its own national interest. He also described India as its “Closest Neighbour” literally and strategically indeed. China did have a strong and assertive strategy which could be easily exercised during the previous Abdullah Yameen Government which gave a virtual carte blanche to cooperation with China. Consequently China, which is seeking a strong maritime hold and presence in the Indian Ocean, immediately pushed to sign a rushed Free Trade Agreement with Maldives as well as invested or committed billions of dollars in its strategic infrastructure projects.
The upgradation of Male airport, completion of friendship bridge connecting Male with Hulhule and financing and construction of mass housing on the reclaimed land at a cost of over US $ 3 billion which is nearly 60% of the GDP of the Maldives which it can hardly afford. Therefore, the new Government is not keen to continue with the Chinese costly injection of the capital. The ex-president Mohd. Nasheed in an interview to First Post had reiterated that “China is using a debt trap as a disciplinary tool to run Maldives and that there is a rapid land grab process along with huge vanity infrastructure projects funded by China in his country in return for supporting dictatorship, abusing human rights and silencing local dissent.
Maldives is an important strategic country in India’s maritime and security calculus and has maintained a highly supportive relationship with successive governments in the country. India has provided extensive financial, developmental, capacity building and infrastructural support across the whole economic and security spectrum. India has always been the first responder to Maldives emergent needs.
Given its close proximity and interest in the stability of the Maldives, India had militarily intervened at the request of the then Gayoom government to bring about political stability in 1988. Similarly, during the natural calamities like Tsunami in 2004 India was the first country to rush relief and aid to Maldives as well as provided a budget support aid of Rs 10 crores to address immediate financial difficulties on account of the natural calamities. India also immediately rushed potable water to address the immediate shortages in the country. India is the key country providing capacity building and training assistance as well as skill development to Maldives it offers large number of scholarships under the hi-tech programme, ICCR scholarship SAARC Chair fellowship and others.
It is helping finance a $5.3 million project for technology adoption programme in education sectors. More than 5000 Maldivian teachers and youth across Islands have been trained and IT skills. India remains a preferred destination for the Maldivians for education, medical treatment recreation and business.
India has extended another 1000 scholarships over a period of five years in the areas of ‘judicial, policing and law-enforcement, audit and financial management, local governance, community development, IT, e-governance, sports, media, youth and women empowerment, leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship, arts and culture” thereby making the capacity and institution building as the fulcrum of bilateral cooperation.
To tide over Maldives immediate economic problems, India agreed to extend US$ 1.4 billion -the largest so far – to meet its urgent developmental requirements and socio -economic objectives which will be provided by way of budgetary support, currency swap, and concessional lines of credit. This should be able to offset and to some extent neutralize the absence of Chinese loans and consequent financial and debt burden.
India also welcomed Maldives into the Indian Ocean Rim Association and supports its decision to return to the Commonwealth. In this context both leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean Region. While India has regained its cooperation matrix with Maldives it is important to remember that China is very much there and perhaps the Wuhan spirit will allow certain accommodation that may keep the competition healthy.
The author is Fmr Ambassador of India to Jordan , Libya & Malta
Adviser to FICCI on MENA & AFRICA / BRICS Chamber of Commerce