Greeting the old ally
Drastic political changes in the Maldives have facilitated a new era of friendship and cooperation with India
India-Maldives relations are now back on an even keel after they touched their nadir during the presidency of Abdullah Yameen (2013-18). Dissent was suppressed, all opposition leaders were imprisoned, and President Mohamed Nasheed was deposed and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. Later, he was allowed to go to England for treatment. Behind a democratic façade, president Abdullah Yameen ruled the island nation with an iron hand. Relations with India deteriorated, and relations with China flourished. Beijing's long shadow over Maldives became longer, its grip on Maldives firmer.
Last year's elections changed all that. The autocratic rule of Yameen was ended democratically (Incidentally, in Maldives elections, ballot papers are used, not EVMs.) The deposed president Nasheed was then living in Sri Lanka. He was neither allowed to return to his country nor take part in the elections. But his friend and close associate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) won the elections. He was sworn in as president on November 17, 2018. It marked the beginning of a new era of friendship and cooperation between India and Maldives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended Solih's swearing-in ceremony.
President Solih, in his first trip abroad, came to India in December 2018. The visit was fruitful. India announced a line of credit of $1.4 billion toward budgetary support and for the social and economic development of the country. The assistance came not a day too soon. The previous regime of Yameen had landed the country in a deep economic crisis. India stepped in just in time with its assistance. Maldives' debt to China has been estimated by different agencies and put between $1 and $3 billion – a practically unrepayable debt for the tiny island nation.
At the time of announcing the financial aid to Maldives, Prime Minister Modi said that the two countries had agreed that security interests of both were intertwined and both sides would work together to strengthen cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. "We will not allow our countries to be used for activities which can be harmful to each other's interests", Modi said. No country was named but China got the message.
On his part, Solih made clear his resolve to correct the pro-China tilt that Yameen had imparted to the foreign policy of Maldives. He indicated that he would pull out of the "lopsided" Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that his predecessor had entered into with China. Beijing put a brave face on the new developments and maintained it was committed to continuing good ties with Maldives.
The political equation within Maldives had changed with the defeat of Beijing's protégé Yameen and the return to power of MDP. It forced Beijing to reshape its strategy toward Maldives, especially in view of India-Maldives joint declaration of strengthening cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region where Beijing is increasing its footprint much to the unease of New Delhi. The Modi-Solih joint declaration meant that Maldives was moving away from China and coming closer to India. It meant a diplomatic setback for China which had become accustomed to treating Maldives as a client country under Yameen.
At the time of his New Delhi visit in December, Maldives Finance Minister had said that China was overcharging the projects it was building in Maldives. The infrastructure projects were being built at vastly higher rates than originally agreed upon. But the problem was that his country could not get out of the commitments the previous regime had made. One of the China-aided projects was building a mass housing scheme on land reclaimed from the sea. Another was a sea bridge to connect capital Malé with the main airport located on another island.
With the change in government at Malé, New Delhi now hopes the projects that India wanted to build in Maldives but could not due to the hostile attitude of the Yameen government, can be taken up now. One of the abandoned projects was the setting up of an academy for training the armed forces of Maldives. These projects offered by India were opposed by Yameen, presumably under Chinese pressure. It may be recalled here that in November 2012, Maldives cancelled its biggest foreign investment project, a $511 million deal for developing an international airport at Malé by a Bengaluru-based Indian company that specialised in airport-building, reportedly because China did not want the project going to India.
The Maldives archipelago consists of 1200 islands, about two hundred of which are inhabited. Most of these are very small islands or atolls with great scenic beauty. There is immense scope for Maldives to develop tourism with the help of India. In fact, even now, 33 per cent of Maldives' GDP is contributed by the tourism industry.
Tourism apart, fishing is the next big source of the country's income. The total catch of sea fish has gone up from 13,000 tonnes in 1960 to 1,84,158 tonnes in 2006. To boost foreign trade, the government of Solih dispensed with the requirement to obtain export and re-export licence with effect from the 15th of this month (April).
The strategic importance of Maldives lies in the fact that it is located in the centre of the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca through which major oil exports in the Indian Ocean Region pass. It is precisely for this reason that Maldives found a place of importance in China's "String of Pearls" policy to encircle India. Last year's elections have brought about a sea change in the political situation in Maldives. In her own interest, India should reach out to Maldives and help in every possible way.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)