Diplomatic Pivot: India and Maldives Rebuild Ties Amid Geopolitical Shifts

The recent visit of Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 9 marks a significant step forward in revitalizing the relationship between India and the Maldives. The decision to invite him is a signal that New Delhi is keen on continuing its cooperation with the neighbouring island country. Ties between India and the Maldives nosedived last November when Muizzu, known for his pro-China leanings, took charge as Maldivian president. In fact, one of the main planks of his campaign had been the ‘India-Out’ campaign, in which he vowed that Indian troops stationed in the island country would be made to go.

Maldives, an island nation of 5.24 lakh people, is located 300 nautical miles from India’s west coast and barely 70 nautical miles from the Minicoy Islands. Thus, India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, and commercial links that date back to ancient times. The modern partnership began in 1965, when Maldives gained independence from the British and India became one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with it. Just as India has a neighbourhood first policy, Maldives has an ‘India-First’ Policy, enunciated by ex-President of Maldives Ibrahim Solih during his visit to New Delhi in 2022, which is a recognition of India’s special status in the island nation as a first responder and net security provider.

India demonstrated this time and again in 1988 when it responded to the then-Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s urgent request to defeat an attempted coup. The intervention by Indian armed forces, code-named ‘Operation Cactus’, trounced the attempted coup. During the 2004 tsunami, the December 2014 water crisis in Male, and more recently during the pandemic, India gifted 100,000 doses of the India-manufactured Covid-19 vaccine to the Maldives to meet the immediate requirements of vaccinating healthcare workers, frontline workers, and those with co-morbidities. Since 1988, defence and security have been a major area of cooperation between both nations. A comprehensive plan for defence was signed in April 2016 to consolidate the defence partnership. India provides the largest number of training opportunities for the Maldivian National Defence Force, meeting around 70% of the defence training requirements. India’s defence cooperation also extends to the areas of joint exercises, maritime domain awareness, joint hydrography, and infrastructure development.

India also has a very strong development partnership with Maldives. India has provided roughly USD 2 billion by way of grants, concessional letters of credit, and bias credit, and another USD 800 million in financial assistance, including budgetary support and a currency swap arrangement. Some of the iconic projects set up with Indian assistance include the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Maldives Polytechnic, and the India-Maldives Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Studies. The latest to join the ranks of landmark bilateral projects is the National College for Policing and Law Enforcement (NCPLE), India’s largest grant project in the Maldives which was inaugurated by President Solih and External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar in March 2022. At present, India-assisted projects in the region include water and sanitation projects on 34 islands, the construction of 6,000 social housing units in Greater Male, road drainage and reclamation projects for the Adu Island, the expansion of fisheries, the restoration of the Male Friday Mosque, and the development of a port, airports, cancer hospitals, and a cricket stadium. India is also implementing community development projects in the Maldives in sectors such as fisheries, ecotourism, sustainable development, agriculture, heritage and culture, health, island infrastructure, and education.

India-Maldives bilateral trade crossed the USD 300 million mark for the first time in 2021 which further crossed USD 500 million mark in 2022. This is a direct consequence of the launch of cargo vessel service between the two countries in September 2020 and the air travel bubble instituted in August 2020. 29,000 Indians live in Maldives, forming the second-largest expatriate community. They include doctors, nurses, health professionals, teachers, and workers in the tourism industry. Tourism, which directly accounts for about 25% of the GDP of Maldives and 60% of export earnings, has emerged as a big connector between India and the Maldives. The visit of President Solih to New Delhi in 2022 was centred around the joint inauguration of the Greater Male Connectivity Project, the largest infrastructure project of the Maldives, which will consist of a 6.74-kilometre-long bridge and causeway link between Male and three adjoining islands, viz., Villingli, Gulhifalhu, and Thilafushi. This USD 500 million India-funded project will enhance mobility, reduce costs, and drive economic growth for the Maldivian people.

The 2023 Maldivian presidential election results came in favour of the challenger candidate, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, by defeating the incumbent President Sohih. Muizzu assumed the role of Minister of Housing and Environment under President Abdulla Yameen’s administration in 2013, who led the ‘India Out’ campaign, calling for the removal of Indian military projects and other initiatives in the Maldives archipelago. Yameen’s government was seen as pro-China at the time. In 2017, the Maldives Parliament approved the China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which caused significant concern in India. In contrast, Solih’s government had been seen as pro-India as he openly projected an India First Policy, and signed many agreements with India. As a result, the election was seen as a tussle between the India First vs. India Out campaign and, as an extension, an India versus China election.

There was further turbulence in the India-Maldives relations when three deputy ministers of Muizzu’s government ridiculed PM Modi over his visit to Lakshadweep in January 2024. In a backlash to the comments, many took to social media, claiming that they had cancelled their planned holiday to the Maldives. With lakhs of Indians visiting the Maldives every year, India is among the largest contributors to the country’s tourism. There was outrage within Maldives as well, with the ex-president slamming the minister’s comments against what he called a key ally as detrimental to the country’s security and prosperity. Amid the political and economic fallout, the Maldivian government was quick to suspend its representatives for their insulting social media posts. Distancing itself from the minister’s remarks, the Maldivian government said that it would not affect the country’s ties with India.

India is concerned that China is attempting to court Muizzu to expand its influence in the Maldives as part of its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, which aims to encircle the Indo-Pacific region. While India is of great economic importance to the Maldives, Maldives is strategically critical to India, particularly amid China’s rising footprint in the region. The Maldivian government’s actions come as a reassurance to India that the island nation continues its commitment to maintaining ties with New Delhi.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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