Contextualise the current relationship between India and Maldives
PM Modi's first foreign visit was to Maldives in June 2019 after his re-election as Prime Minister in May, reflecting the importance India attaches to its 'Neighbourhood First' policy. While Modi visited the Maldives in November 2018 to attend President Solih's swearing-in, this visit is the first by an Indian prime minister at a bilateral level in eight years.
The relations between India and the Maldives deteriorated under President Abdulla Yameen. The pro-China Maldivian government under Yameen had gone to the extent of asking India to remove its gifted helicopters and crew from the country and even “banned” Indian workers from entering the country.
Some decisions by Yameen government including imposition of restrictions on work visas for Indians and signing of a new Free Trade Agreement with Beijing also did not go down well with New Delhi. China views the Maldives as key to its Maritime Silk Road project in the Indian Ocean as it has already acquired Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. However, ties were back on track under Solih's presidency.
Why is Maldives important to India?
India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links.
Strategically located in the Indian Ocean-300 miles of the southern coast of India and 450 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, Maldives archipelago comprising 1,200 coral islands lies next to key shipping lanes which ensure uninterrupted energy supplies to countries like China, Japan and India.
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. Since China started to send naval ships to Indian Ocean roughly 10 years ago — and right up to Gulf of Aden in the name of antipiracy operations — Maldives' significance has steadily grown and now it's at the heart of international geopolitics.
China's massive economic presence in Maldives is a major concern for India. With the country now said to owe 70% of its external aid to China, many believe that Yameen has done to Maldives what Rajapaksa did to Sri Lanka. India had to push back
Under Yameen, radicalisation grew rapidly and it was often said that archipelago accounted for one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria in terms of per capita. India can ill-afford a neighbour which fails to check Islamic radicalisation.
As the pre-eminent South Asian power and a 'net security provider' in the Indian Ocean region, India needs to cooperate with Maldives in security and defence sectors.
Maldives is also a member of Saarc. It is important for India to have Maldives on board to maintain its leadership in the region.
There are 25,000 Indian nationals living in Maldives (second largest expatriate community). Indian tourists also account for close to 6% of tourists Maldives receives every year.
India is also a preferred destination for Maldivians for education, medical treatment, recreation and business. According to MEA, more and more Maldivians are seeking long term visa for pursuing higher studies/medical treatment in India.
How did China cultivate Maldives in recent years and why? Account for the backlash.
China’s BRI had a strong and assertive strategy which could be relatively easily executed during the previous Abdullah Yameen Government which gave a blank cheque to cooperation with China. Consequently, China, seeking a strong maritime hold and presence in the Indian Ocean, rushed to sign 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. China used debt trap as a disciplinary tool to run Maldives with huge vanity infrastructure projects funded by China in return for supporting dictatorship, abusing human rights and silencing local dissent.
Therefore, after his election in 2018 September, 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.
Elaborate on the multi-dimensional relationship of India and Maldives
Maldives is located south of India's Lakshadweep Islands in the Indian Ocean. Both nations established diplomatic relations after the independence of Maldives from British rule in 1966. India was one of the first nations to recognise Maldives' independence. Since then, India and Maldives have developed close strategic, military, economic and cultural relations.
Both nations are founding members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and signatories to the South Asia Free Trade Agreement. Indian and Maldivian leaders have maintained high-level contacts and consultations on regional issues.
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 in 2014. 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.
What is the significance of PM Modi`s visit to Maldives in June 2019?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Indian Ocean archipelago on his first foreign visit after re-election as Prime Minister to strengthen the bilateral ties, reflecting the importance India attaches to its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Modi and Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih signed six agreements to strengthen bilateral ties in a number of key areas including defence and maritime.
The first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was for cooperation in the fields of hydrography. Another was on health. The other agreements included on the establishment of passenger and cargo services by sea, cooperation in customs capacity building between the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs of India and the Maldives Customs Service. An MoU was also signed between the National Centre for Good Governance, Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances and Maldives Civil Service Commission on Training and Capacity Building Programme for Maldivian civil servants.
A coastal surveillance radar system and a composite training centre for the Maldives defence forces were jointly inaugurated by the two leaders. India has agreed on the construction of a Friday Mosque in the southern part of the Maldives where an urban development centre is being built.
India and the Maldives have agreed to launch a passenger-cum-cargo ferryservice between Kerala's Kochi and the Maldivian capital Male via Kulhudhuffushi atoll to strengthen connectivity between the two countries and boost tourism. The distance between Kochi and Male is about 700 kms, and between Kochi and Kulhudhuffushi atoll is 500 kms. Maldives reaffirmed its "India-First Policy”, saying it looks forward to working closely with India on all issues and will remain sensitive towards its security and strategic concerns as External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj held talks with the country's top leadership.
Prime Minister Modi said that the launch of RuPay Card in the Maldives will give a boost to tourism in the island nation. Maritime and defence ties are a top priority and the radar system will boost maritime security.
Prime Minister Modi was conferred with the Maldives’ highest honour “Rule of Nishan Izzuddeen” during his visit to the country.
The Maldivian leaders expressed commitment to support India's efforts to combat terrorism, particularly cross-border terrorism, and crimes such as piracy, organised crime, narcotic drugs and human trafficking.
National Security Adviser (NSA) level talks
India, Maldives and Sri Lanka are planning to revive their tri-nation national security adviser-level security dialogue, in the backdrop of Colombo terrorist strikes and following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to Male and Colombo, the first foreign destinations he chose to visit in his second term. The talks had been put on hold five years ago, because of the approach of the then Yameen regime in the Maldives. Growing terrorist network including rising presence of ISIS is a challenge for all three — India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Modi’s June visit to Male and agreements concluded during that trip, and inauguration of a radar network and defence training centre, have underlined India’s critical role as the net-security provider in the region, where China is trying to increase its influence. Similarly, during his brief visit to Colombo on Sunday, the PM emphasised on India’s support to counter terror.
Three NSA-level meetings on maritime trilateral cooperation had earlier been held. Maldives was scheduled to hold the fourth NSA-level meet but the Abdulla Yameen regime did not take the initiative. Now, a change of guard in Male has revived hopes for resumption of the talks.