India-Maldives Ties: Back On Track: RSTV – India’s World

Anchor: Frank Rausan Pereira

Guest:  Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador; Sriram Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs; Commodore (Retd.) Anil Jai Singh, Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation

Why in the news?

  • Recently, the Maldives reaffirmed its India First Policy, saying that it looks closely towards working 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 Maldivian top leadership.
  • The Maldivian leaders also expressed commitment to support India’s efforts to combat terrorism, particularly, cross-border terrorism and crimes such as piracy, organized crime, narcotic drugs, and human trafficking.
  • Sushma Swaraj was in the Maldives capital of Male recently on a two day visit- the first full-fledged bilateral trip from India to the strategically located Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives after the government of Ibrahim Mohammed Solhi came to power in November 2018.
  • She held talks with President Solhi, foreign Minister Abdulla Shaheed, former President Mohammed Nasheed and other top leaders.
  • The External Affairs Minister and President Solhi took stock of the progress made in the bilateral relations since his visit to India in December 2018.
  • This edition of India’s World will take stock of the status of the ties between India and the Maldives.

Analysis by the Experts:

First let’s take stock of the visit of the External Affairs Ministers Visit to Maldives and what were the key takeaways for you from that?

Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador weighed in with his arguments here.

  • I believe that after several years, the visit of the External Affairs Minister to the Maldives put in place, the kind of close relationship which we have had with the Maldives for many years.
  • India had worked very closely with Maldivian leaders such as Gayoom, Nasheed. Even the persons who had deposed Nasheed were invited to Delhi.
  • Thus, India always treated the Maldives with the kind of affection, and closeness which a big nation like India should have for its small neighbour. However, for some reason or the other, that was in a bit of a doubt in the minds of at least the people who ruled Male. Mercifully, that thing has changed, and since November 2018, everything is going in the right direction. The Prime Minister of India himself, Shri Narendra Modi had gone to Male for the swearing in ceremony. Subsequently, the President of the Maldives visited India.

More recently, India’s External Affairs Minister visited the Maldives. She had a meeting not only with her counterpart, but also with a number of important ministers in the Maldivian cabinet- these included Health, Transport, Civiliation, Finance, Development, etc. So, this is a kind of a nexus that we have of cooperation with the Maldives, which is all encompassing.  The population of the Maldives is small but India has maintained that it would give many scholarships to Maldivian students. This shows the kind of openness that India has.

Further, these MOU’s that have been signed also deal with strategic issues  in the sense that Maldives needs development. They need hospitals, schools. During this visit, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj unveiled a plaque of the renovated Indira Gandhi Memorial (IGM) Hospital in Maldives.

India also has the need for Maritime transport, thus maritime security is an important dimension with which we have been working with the Maldives over the past many years now.

The next area to cooperate on is that of “Terrorism”. Also, areas such as sea piracy, drug trafficking, human trafficking, all come under the ambit of non-traditional crimes, however, Maldives being a small country is particularly vulnerable, and they need India’s support and India is forthcoming with that.  The whole visit is from benign India looking towards forging very good relations with its neighbour, with a no-holds-bar approach.

Ties back on track do you believe? And do you believe that the efforts made by India have paid off at the end of the day?

Commodore (Retd.) Anil Jai Singh, Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation , weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Yes, I believe that the efforts that India has made, has paid off. This is because in the emerging geopolitical landscape or seascape, if you look at it from the context of the Indo-Pacific which has a very distinct maritime orientation, every country with whom you share the sea is your neighbour. So, Maldives from that point of view is India’s maritime neighbour.
  • It is my belief that our “Neighbourhood First Policy” and the “India-First Policy” adopted by the Maldives, complement each other very well.
  • It was also very reassuring that the Maldivian Defence Minister, during the recent visit of India’s External Affairs Minister to the Maldives, said that we don’t need to militarily talk to any other country as India has always been there to support us. And we have been there to support Maldives time and again. Whenever Maldives has faced a crisis, India has been the first responders. In any case, India is the preeminent Indian Ocean Power, and a net security provider (as it mandates itself to be), is responsible to ensure that the Indian Ocean Region remains safe, stable, follows the rules-based international order, and for the many ships that transit the Indian Ocean Region, remains secure.
  • Maldives, despite being the smallest county in Asia, has a huge sea area. Maldives also sits astride some very important sea lanes of communication. This is one of the reasons why the Chinese have been trying to make some overtures to the Maldives over the last few years.
  • The Chinese have indeed succeeded to a certain extent, particularly, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), their entire strategy in the Indian Ocean Region in which they have a permanent presence.
  • This realigning of relationships that has taken place in the last year or so, ever since the new President has taken office, is a very welcome development. I believe that India from a maritime perspective engages a lot with the Maldives; the Indian Navy engages a lot with the Maldives.
  • Further Maritime domain awareness becomes very important – this is because we must know what is happening in the seas around us and that is where countries like the Maldives really have a big role to play.

Since you brought up China, with the recent warming up of ties between India and the Maldives, has a bead been lost in the string of pearls?

Commodore (Retd.) Anil Jai Singh, Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation , weighed in with his arguments here.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a bead has been lost in the string of pearls, but certainly, it is not where it was.  And I believe that we must now consolidate. We must introspect and see where we would have fallen short earlier, which led to this realignment happening. Further, from a capacity building perspective, we have to clearly do a lot more. This will help in so far as driving home the message that for Maldives, it will be “India First” and “India-First” always.

That having been said, is it important for us to not be complacent? We all know that China is going to constantly try and make inroads into Maldives. Your thoughts…

Sriram Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • It is important to note that as soon as Ibrahim Sohli got elected, within weeks, in October 2018, the Chinese ambassador in Male is supposed to have met the Chinese leadership and presented Xi Jinping with an invoice of 3.2 Billion USD owed by the Maldives to China.
  • The previous authoritarian regime under Abdulla Yameen had engaged in a lot of hanky-panky with the Chinese. This was non-transparent and undemocratic.
  • Currently in the Maldives, the new government is discovering as to how much of a debt-trap is it already been dragged into.
  • In my opinion, Maldives would have to repudiate some of its Chinese debts. This is because some of these enriched Yameen’s debts and his cronies and this did not benefit the nation of the Maldives.
  • However, the Chinese would use the creditor leverage, to try and remain in the game. It is using this philosophy that China attempts at exerting its might over smaller nations which are economically down. As a consequence, smaller nations across the road are ‘bought’.
  • The Chinese can definitely go to international forums, and the process of arbitration to stake their claims.
  • The fact is that Chinese statecraft is all about using economic levers to extract political advantages. Thus, China would surely in some capacity tell the Maldives to restrict its “India- First Policy”.
  • Or they may issue guidelines, saying that India should not be inimical to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other plans in the Indian Ocean, or else, we (China) would raise the claims.
  • Thus, China would like to hold on to this debt in a way to try and squeeze Maldives.
  • Further, it is important to note that Prime Minister Modi announced a 1.4 Billion dollar financial package when Ibrahim Solih visited India in December, 2018. I would believe that that figure of 1.4 Billion dollars would go into budgetary support, but also for social and economic projects, which would be sustainable in nature and which would not be white elephants like what the Chinese have done under Yameen.
  • Thus, in my view it is very important that we (as a society) understand that the Chinese are there and that the entire region (include Sri Lanka). It is important to note that a number of other countries, across the western Indian Ocean region, are already a part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Thus, the question for us to ascertain is what is it exactly that we must do to reduce the dependence of these small countries. Further, I believe that we have taken a bold step in this regard.
  • Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan- these three countries, have traditionally been the largest recipients of Indian development assistance.
  • However, now, Maldives has come in. We (India) were totally reluctant to commit anything as long as the old regime was there. However, we are now incentivising the democratic resurgence in the Maldives, by saying that if India can go in a moderate and binding fashion, then so can the Maldives.
  • Significantly, we would not want the Maldives to repay Chinese debt with Indian money. We (India) want the Maldives to become self-sufficient, and self-reliant.
  • Also, we (India) would like Maldives to have both economic and strategic military capabilities of its own, so that it is able to hold-off from this looming shadow of the Chinese.

Two Aspects- the first one being on the Economy, and the second being the cultural and sporting ties- for example, India has decided to build a cricket stadium in the Maldives, and this has paid us a lot of dividends as far as Afghanistan is concerned. For example, the Afghanistan cricket team has now made India its home, and this has resulted in better ties between the two countries. Thus, the same could possibly happen with the Maldives as well. Your thoughts…  

Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments to this question.

  • Well, the population of the Maldives is predominantly young. Thus, how does one deal with them? Possibly, one can entice the young by jobs, by training, by education, and sports. Thus, India’s focus is one all those four areas. Further, the cricket stadium is a very visible manifestation of one’s interests. Thus, this is a very good area to convey India’s goodwill and her involvement. The other important point to consider is the China factor. When we look at the entire Indian Ocean region, the Chinese have been at it for not just the past 5-6 years but for a long time. The other big Indian Ocean power is Australia, and all over Australia, you have the South Pacific Islands. The islands are predominantly dominated by the Chinese.  The Chinese have gone and settled there.
  • The leadership of Maldives, most notably the former President Yameen said that we have around 200 thousand Chinese who come and visit the Maldives as tourists. Thus, it is important to note that smaller countries must not outnumber the population of a big country. India does nothing which is predatory in nature.
  • India has adopted a benign and very generous attitude. Now, this pays dividends in the longer run. This is because a democratically elected government which has popular support, looks to India. Thus, when a democratically elected Government talks to India, and talks about Pro-India policies, then such an attitude also shows that they have the support of the people as well. Thus, from India’s perspective, we should be able to win hearts and minds. This is because, we cannot compete with China. As a matter of fact, the Chinese are coming across many problems even in Africa. The Chinese forays into Africa have given them a backlash.
  • Long back, the Maldives even had a crunch for rice, and they received assistance from the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The closeness of India to the Maldives is such that we can respond to the Maldives in times of their crisis.

How important is it to have a stable Maldives for the entire region?

Commodore (Retd.) Anil Jai Singh, Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation , weighed in with his arguments here.

  • When the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi had assumed office, one of the things that he had enunciated was SAGAR which is an acronym for Security and Growth for All in the Region.
  • This was all about engaging with our neighbourhood. Our strategic sphere of influence is driven through connectivity, capacity building, cooperative engagement strategy, and we have done that remarkably well over the years (especially in the last 4-5 years), particularly with the Maldives.
  • We have responded to every crisis of theirs, including the 2014 water crisis, where not only did we airlift water, but some of our ships, which had RO plants were despatched, and were able to distil water and give it to the Maldivians.
  • We also gave them two helicopters. The Defence Minister of the Maldives has said that these helicopters have been of great help to them in terms of the search and rescue operations- especially because the Maldives has got a lot of islands.
  • Ever since the new administration has come to power in the Maldives, these helicopters have been used on more than 10 occasions- to rescue fisherman and people at sea.
  • The third important point to mention here is that India has supported Maldives’ Blue Economy Initiatives.
  • As a matter of fact, the Maldives has the lowest elevation in the world, it is only 1.5 metres above MSL.
  • The Maldives is in serious fear of being inundated due to the effects of climate change.
  • This is the reason why the Maldives is taking efforts to go carbon free.
  • It is here that India needs to come in and support these initiatives, of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), in accordance with item 14 of the SDG. However, whatever initiatives these small countries take in this direction, should be met with support from India. As a consequence, India would get their support in return. The Maldives have already supported our bid for gaining entry as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). They are also going to support our membership candidature as a non-permanent member in the UNSC in the year 2020. Thus, India should take the lead in terms of supporting the Maldives in their Blue Economy Initiatives.
  • The other important aspect to point out is India bringing the Maldives into its Coastal Security Grid. As a matter of fact, India is planning to establish coastal security radars on all the 26 atolls of the Maldives and they will be interlinked with the Coastal Security Grid which we’ve established at a centre near Gurgaon. Thus, we are entering into a strategic realm in our relationship with the Maldives.

Are there any aspects of the bilateral relationship that need any special attention?

Sriram Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • We have historically been worried about the trend of Islamist radicalisation in the Maldives, and the previous regime of Abdulla Yameen had deliberately stoked and encouraged that phenomenon for domestic political polarization in the Maldives.
  • Now, thankfully we have a strong, moderate and secular regime of Ibrahim Sohli and the present administration is quite committed on de-radicalising the society. This is one area that we must pay attention to because of the geographical proximity that India has with the Maldives and the risk of Jihadist activities which harms Indian interests, emanating from countries like the Maldives.
  • India has a lot of moderate Islamic clerics who can be highly beneficial in turning around the opinions in the Maldives. Maldives have their Islamic systems which are largely influenced by the Wahhabi model. Interestingly, Maldives is also influenced by Pakistan as well despite the fact that it is a small country. Pakistan has aligned itself with the previous regime of Abdulla Yameen. Thus, it is very important to clear ideological brain washing especially against the youth.
  • Further, housing is an issue to be addressed in the Maldives. Prime Minister Modi has been speaking again to his Maldivian counterpart about bringing back companies to build those sustainable projects.
  • We should keep in mind that GMR was building the airport; however, GMR had to stop its construction activities.
  • Last but not the least, we have the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)
  • It important to note that Maldives is one of the members of the IORA and so are India, and Australia.
  • One must remember that Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius, etc. all these nations are in the vicinity of Maldives, and all of them are a part of the IORA.
  • With regards to India and the Maldives, apart from the bilateral dialogues, we should aim at building up some of the support groups.

Further, Sri Lanka has very close bonds, with the Maldives. Also, if India can create a “Friends of Maldives” kind of a grouping, that would be a step in the right direction. The IORA should be the vehicle to prop up something and make it stable. However this needs more deliberation.

We should definitely engage more meetings with the Maldivian President, and attempt at promoting the Maldives as a tourism destination.

Concluding Remarks:  

  • Tourism is an effective block against threats such as radicalization.
  • Maldives should be brought into India’s collective security framework in the region through capacity building in a big way. Maldives is capable of looking after her own interests.
  • The Asia-Africa growth corridor, which involves linking South East Asia, North East Aisia, etc needs to be looked into. The Africa-Asia growth corridor can be a game changer as far as India-Maldives relations are concerned.

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