India and Maldives: A new chapter begins
The Indo-Maldivian ties have been taken to the next level with the various landmark announcements made by the Modi government after the foreign ministers of both countries held a meeting earlier on the 13th of August. This is seen as a breakthrough in the diplomatic relations between India and Maldives which further strengthens the regional cooperation in South Asia. The main highlight of the announcements was the amount of India’s financial assistance to the Maldives which exceeded 2 billion dollars in totality. The Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih emphasised and reaffirmed his “India first” policy which in the tenure of his predecessor was heavily tilted towards China. The meeting which was held on a video conference was presided by EAM S. Jaishankar and his Maldivian counterpart Abdulla Shahid along with their respective foreign delegations.
The Maldives has been the biggest beneficiary of the Covid-19 assistance given by India among its all of India’s neighbouring countries. When the world supply chains were blocked because of the pandemic, India continued to provide crucial commodities to the Maldives under Mission SAGAR. Both countries in the past have shared close military and economic cooperation in the region. Joint naval exercises have been conducted in the Indian ocean and India still contributes to the security of the maritime island. With the ambitious plan deliberated upon by both the countries, it is definitely a sign of enduring ties based on mutual trust and shared interests. Various tweets flooded in immediately after the announcements were made by key diplomats and political figures of both the countries.
“A landmark moment in Maldives-India cooperation today as we receive Indian assistance of USD250 million as budget support and USD500 million for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project. I thank PM @narendramodi and the Indian people for their generosity and friendship.” This was tweeted by the President of the Maldives to which the PM Modi replied by another tweet-
“Thank you, President @ibusolih! India will continue to support the Maldives in mitigating the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our special friendship is, and will always remain, as deep as the waters of the Indian Ocean.”
The announcements made as a part of the conference were quite comprehensive which involved various investment projects, credit lines and foreign aid. While some of them aimed specifically to help tackle the Covid-19 crisis, others were general ones to strengthen the overall bilateral relationship. The 500 million USD package was aimed at supporting and fostering the implementation of the “Great Male Connectivity project” in the Maldives. This project would be the largest civilian infrastructure project in the Maldives, which is targeted to connect Villingili, Gulhifahu and Thilafushi to the Capital of Maldives, by the construction of a bridge-and-causeway link spanning 6.7 km. Such roadway connectivity will help in rapidly boosting economic activity and help in developing a culture of urbanism in the area, creating further employment opportunities. A new direct Cargo Ferry scheme was also planned in order to boost economic relations. With better trade facilities and easier export and import of important cargo through a well sea connected routes, transportation costs would considerably reduce. Earlier in June, the Prime Minister of India had already announced the starting of tourist ferry services between the countries which helped in better tourism prospects in the Maldives. To further the tourism sector, the operationalisation of the air bubble services was also agreed upon. This is the first-ever project of its form introduced by India for any of its neighbouring countries. Talks on the renewal of quotas of various essential commodities between the two countries to ensure their affordability in the Maldives also took place. Moreover, arrangements on soft loans and other credit extension facilities were also discussed, the details of which are still being finalised over.
The China Angle
The Maldives has always been a crucial country strategically due to its geographical presence in the Indian Ocean. But lately, with the ongoing rift between India and China, it’s importance and allegiance to the two big powers in Asia has only increased. The change in political leadership in the Maldives after Mr. Solih became the president has helped India turn to a new chapter in the bilateral relationship. Earlier, the predecessor of the current president, Mr. Abdulla Yameen had deliberately drifted away from India and drawn the Maldives closer to China. He crushed all opposition to his authoritarian rule with by either jailing or exiling his opponents. China has been constantly increasing its infrastructure operations in and around the Indian ocean and to further its control over the waters, it needed the support of the maritime nations in the region. Sri Lanka had already lost it’s a crucial port to China because of its huge debt to China and the same was in the process to happen with the Maldives as well. The Maldives, popular for its turquoise waters and vivid beaches, was also at the centre of the Belt and Road Initiative of China to use the region for spreading its own network of supply chains. This debt trap diplomacy and well as the increasing economic ambition of China was and still is a great threat to India’s strategic interests and to its national sovereignty. But with President Solih taking power, his proximity towards India has been only increasing. This is indicative to China that India has always taken priority for the Maldives and will continue to do so. Only time will tell how the important Maldives is in maintaining a power balance in the region alongside India in an attempt to counter China.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team