India Maldives Relationship

JAN 5

Mains   > International relations   >   India and Neighbours   >   India- Maldives

IN NEWS:

  • The Government of Maldives and several political figures in Maldives have hit back against former President Abdulla Yameen’s “India out” campaign, allegedly promoted by China.

MALDIVES:

  • It is a small island nation situated in the Indian Ocean. It lies southwest of India, at about 700 kilometres from the mainland. Malé is its capital.
  • The archipelago is located on the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge.

  • The Maldives is one of the world's most geographically dispersed sovereign states, consisting of a chain of 26 atolls. It is also the smallest Asian country by land area and population.
  • The region became a British protectorate in 1887. It gained Independence in 1965 and a Presidential republic was established in 1968 with an elected People's Majlis.

INDIA AND MALDIVES:

  • Political Relations:
    • India was among the first to recognise and establish diplomatic relations with Maldives after its independence. Almost all Prime Ministers of India have visited the Maldives. Also, there are regular high-level ministerial visits between the countries.
    • ‘India First’ has been a stated policy of the Government of Maldives and current President Solih.
  • Defence and security:
    • India has been providing a security architecture to Maldives for decades. The 1987 Operation cactus is an example.
    • A comprehensive Action Plan for Defence was signed in April 2016 to consolidate defence partnership.
    • India is also planning to bring the region under India’s coastal radar chain network.
    • India and the Maldives in February, 2021 signed a defence Line of Credit agreement worth USD 50 million.
    • An agreement to develop, support and maintain a Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbour at Sifvaru was also signed.
    • Maldives is part of the India-SriLanka-Maldives security trilateral arrangement which will be expanded in future to include countries from the Western and Eastern Indian Ocean regions.
  • Bilateral assistance:
    • India is a leading development partner of Maldives and has established many leading institutions there including the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) and Faculty of Engineering Technology (FET). India has also extended line of credit worth USD 800 million to Maldives to finance developmental projects.
    • Four agreements were signed between India and Maldives in November 2020 during India’s foreign secretary visit to Maldives:
      • USD 100mn grant for connectivity project
      • Assistance for High impact community development projects
      • MoU on cooperation in sports and youth affairs
      • USD 550 mn assistance for Greater male connectivity project
  • Trade relations:
    • India and Maldives signed a trade agreement in 1981 for export of essential commodities. India imports scrap metals from Maldives while its exports agriculture produce, textiles, drugs and medicines and a variety of engineering and industrial products.
  • Commercial relations:
    • The State Bank of India has been playing a vital role in the economic development of the Maldives, by providing loan assistance for promotion of island resorts, export of marine products and business enterprises. India has also launched its Rupay card in the Maldives.
  • Humanitarian aid:
    • India was the first to assist Maldives during the 2004 Tsunami. In 2014, under Operation NEER, India rushed bottled drinking water to Malé for resolving the water crisis.
    • During the covid pandemic, India rushed a defence medical team and 6.2 tonnes of medical supplies to the island nation under Operation Sanjeevani. 
  • Capacity Building and Training:
    • India offers several scholarships to Maldivian students. Several Maldivian diplomats have received training in India under the Indian Foreign Service Institute’s Professional Course for Foreign Diplomats (PCFD) program.
    • India provides the largest number of training opportunities for Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).
  • People to people contact:
    • The improvements in air connectivity and on-arrival visa has led to a substantial increase in the number of Indians visiting Maldives for tourism and business. Indians are the second largest expatriate community in the Maldives. On the other hand, India is a preferred destination for Maldivians for education, medical treatment, recreation and business.
  • Multilateral:
    • India and Maldives have consistently supported each other in multilateral fora such as the UN, the Commonwealth, the NAM and the SAARC. Also, India is an active supporter of forums such as the Small Island Development States (SIDS).
    • Eg: In June 2021, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid was elected president of the 76th UN General Assembly with India also voting in favour of Maldives.

WHY MALDIVES IS SIGNIFICANT FOR INDIA?

  • Countering Chinese presence:
    • China’s strategic interests over India have prompted it to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean through strategies such as the ‘String of Pearl’. However, a strong relationship with Maldives can help India counter such strategies.
  • Maritime security:
    • The Maldives is geographically positioned like a ‘toll gate’ between the major chokepoints- the Gulf of Aden, Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca. Thus, the Maldives have broad strategic significance for countering piracy and ensuring smooth global maritime trade.
  • Counter terrorism:
    • The island nation could serve as a potential launch pad for terrorists targeting India and there are concerns about the activities of radical elements in the Maldives. Hence, India desires an intelligence sharing mechanism with the region.
  • Economic:
    • India is Maldives’ 4th largest trade partner after UAE, China and Singapore. India-Maldives bilateral trade stood at USD 246 million in 2020, heavily in favour of India. Maldives also has an intrinsic role in advancing the blue economy through sustainable management and utilization of marine resources.
  • To strengthen SAARC:
    • Maldives is an important member of SAARC. It is important for India to have Maldives on board to maintain its leadership in the region.
  • Diaspora:
    • There are over 20,000 Indian nationals living in Maldives. The Indian expatriate community consists of doctors, nurses and technicians, teachers, construction workers, tailors, etc. spread all over the country
  • Tourism:
    • According to the Maldives tourism ministry, Indians accounted for 23% of tourist arrivals in the Maldives with 2.1 lakh visitors as of October 13, 2021

CHALLENGES IN INDIA MALDIVES RELATIONSHIP:

  • Weak financial health:
    • Currently, the island state owes nearly 70% of its total external debt to China. This debt may force the country to make major concessions over its sovereignty as Sri Lanka has over Hambantota port (Srilanka was forced to sign a 99-year lease with China for the port after it was unable to repay loans to develop the project)
  • China’s upper hand:
    • China holds considerable leverage over the archipelago. The Maldivian economy is heavily dependent on the FTA with China and China is a main source of tourists. Furthermore, the Maldivian fishing industry remains dependent on the Chinese market.
    • Recently, Chinese firm Sino Soar Hybrid Technology, whose energy project was suspended in Sri Lanka after India raised concern over its location close to the Tamil Nadu coast, recently signed a similar project in the Maldives.
  • China’s strategic presence:
    • China has been investing heavily in infrastructure in Maldives to expand its ‘One Belt One Road’ programme. China has also leased several Maldivian islands, with the potential of militarizing them in the future. Given the uncertain dynamics of Sino-Indian relations, China’s potential strategic presence in Maldives remains a concern.
  • Political instability:
    • Political turmoil has plagued the archipelago for years. Between 2013 and 2018, then-President Yameen’s administration was seen as tilting heavily towards China and ties with India got strained. While the current government had spoken of an “India first” policy, a regime change in the near future can jeopardize all current efforts.
  • Growing extremism:
    • The growth of religious extremism in Maldives has been a matter of concern for India. Evidences of the rising presence of radical Islamist fundamentalists in the Maldives have emerged in recent times.
  • Environmental concerns:
    • With an average elevation of just 1.5 meters, rising sea levels and climate change will put the island nation further at risk of endangering its relative prosperity. In order to protect the islands, they need strong investments and it needs to be seen if India can cater to this demand.

WAY FORWARD:

  • Strengthen ties:
    • The current regime of Maldives is an opportunity for India to regain its lost ground. Since the 2019 election, India has moved quickly with development projects and other assistance to draw Maldives back into India's fold. Now India has to ensure the timely completion of these projects and reassure its position as a reliable ally.
  • Leverage on soft diplomacy:
    • India must employ its cultural aspects like diaspora, films, music, and people to people interaction to strengthen relations with Maldives.
  • Economic support:
    • New Delhi’s economic outreach, like the line of credit of $800 million, is key to helping Male break free of Beijing’s “debt-for-leverage” model of diplomacy.
  • Increase investments:
    • To deepen its engagement with the Maldivian economy, India needs to encourage its private sector enterprises (such as telecom) to invest in the region.
  • Sustainable development:
    • India is a global frontrunner in the efforts towards sustainable development and countering climate change. India can help the Maldives in adapting to climate change, through deepening engagements in renewable energy, sustainable fishing and coastal area management.
  • Security cooperation:
    • Both countries should strengthen cooperation in areas of counter-terrorism, counter-radicalisation and drug trafficking, through measures like regular intelligence sharing and joint security exercises. 
  • Strategic cooperation:
    • India has agreements with countries like the U.S. and France to use their naval facilities in Djibouti, Diego Garcia etc if required. In this line, India should explore the possibilities of closer cooperation with countries like Australia and African nations to further counter Chinese growth in the Indian Ocean.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. The island nation of Maldives has an outsized importance in Indian foreign policy. Discuss