Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar was on a three-day tour from Jan. 18 to Maldives and Sri Lanka. The visit was set to inaugurate a number of critical India-helped projects aimed at the socio-economic development of the Maldives. The Maldives is set to get in the presidential election this year in September. This small nation has a very strategic location in the Indian ocean. In 2008, following UN Security Council Resolution 1851, China launched its naval expansion into the Indian Ocean. China has grown its maritime footprint since then.
India and the Maldives have ancient ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, and economic ties and enjoy close, amicable, and multifaceted relations. India was one of the first to recognize and establish diplomatic ties with the Maldives after the Britishers departed the island in 1965. India became a permanent High Commissioner in 1980 after starting formal diplomatic relations as a CDA in 1972. The Maldives opened a High Commission in New Delhi in November 2004, one of its four diplomatic missions worldwide. But despite all this, the strength of the diplomatic relationship between the Maldives and India has fluctuated depending on the party or coalition in power in Malé. And with the increasing Chinese presence in small island nations Presidential election in September has become very interesting.
India has been a prominent regional force for many years due to its position as the most powerful nation in the region. More recently, through its Neighborhood First policy, it reaffirmed its dominant role and the centrality of neighbours in its foreign policy. With the coming back of Maldivian Democratic Party into power in 2018, the Maldives established an India-First strategy, giving precedence to its ties with its more prominent and powerful neighbour. President Solih reiterated the Maldives’ India-first policy in August 2022, with both nations assuring each other that they continue to be conscious of the other’s security concerns. The recent visit by foreign minister S. Jaishankar reiterates India’s centrality of immediate neighbours in its foreign policy.
India constitutes a very central role in the Maldives, not just as a security provider but also as a destination for several Maldivian for health and educational destination. During the Covid, residents of the Maldives have come to rely extensively on India for healthcare, including an initial shipment of 100,000 Covishield vaccinations from India in January 2021, towards the height of the pandemic, which was much appreciated. In addition, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in the capital of the Maldives was constructed with assistance from the Indian government. The bilateral connection has evolved to include the tourist industry. India eclipsed China and Europe as the biggest source of visitors to the Maldives in 2020, a significant milestone given that tourism accounts for more than a quarter of the Maldives’ gross domestic product. But despite historical deeper ties, in recent decades, China has emerged as a significant challenge to Indian hegemony in the Maldives.
Chinese increasing involvement
Due to its geopolitical and geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives occupy a significant position in China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). The Maldives and China established formal diplomatic ties in 1972, seven years after the Maldives attained independence from Britain. However, bilateral relations have only lately flourished after China established an embassy in Male in 2011 under the administration of former president Mohamed Nasheed. In May 2009, however, the Maldives opened an embassy in Beijing.
After this, high-level bilateral negotiations were undertaken on political, economic, and military matters. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Maldives and China was signed on Dec. 8, 2017, during President Yameen’s four-day visit to China. It is the first FTA signed by the Maldives with any nation and the second signed by a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nation after Pakistan.
With the interest of increasing its influence in the Maldives, China has supported massive infrastructure projects in the nation, such as the recently opened ‘China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’ connecting Male to Hulhule Island, the airport’s expansion, and the development of a 1,000-apartment housing complex on Hulhumale Island. China is also participating in several other initiatives, including renewable energy, hotel construction, and the establishment of telecommunications networks. President Abdulla Yameen came to office in 2013 following a “soft coup” that deposed the first democratically elected Maldivian president, Mohammad Nasheed. Yameen advocated inclination towards China and termed India a threat to Maldivian sovereignty. During his government, China enjoyed excellent relations with the Maldives. In February 2018, the Supreme court of Maldives ruled that the Yameen government’s detention of opposition leaders, including former president Mohamed Nasheed, was illegal and ordered their release. That same year, Nasheed’s party emerged victorious in the general election, and Ibrahim Mohamed Solih became the President of Maldives.
After the Supreme Court upheld the illegality of detention and called for the release of political prisoners, President Yameen declared an emergency. To uphold democratic values, opposition leader Nasheed pleaded with India to engage militarily and end the situation. But China, in a very unprecedented move, advised against India’s involvement, stating that it did not want the coup to become another ‘flashpoint’. By soliciting Beijing’s backing, the then-government of the Maldives rejected Indian pressure.
China and India cannot afford to upset the Maldivian leadership due to their rivalry for influence in this strategically important island country. In recent years, the Maldives’ relations with its regional neighbours imply that they cannot entirely pivot away from China and toward India but are moving fluidly within the regional political chessboard. China plays two essential roles in the Maldives’ hedging strategy. First, it is a crucial source of substantial economic investments. Second, most Maldivian political elites share China’s aversion to Indian supremacy, mainly Indian meddling in Maldivian internal affairs.
However, despite this, India has continuously increased its engagement. In recent years, India and the Maldives have also signed a flurry of bilateral agreements, including $500 million in grants and financing to support maritime connectivity, an $800 million line of credit from the Export-Import Bank of India, and an agreement on the exchange of information on the movement of commercial maritime vessels. After Solih returned from his third visit to India in August 2022, the friendship reached new heights.
With the upcoming Maldivian 2023 general election, India has a great stake in not presenting itself as compromising Maldivian sovereignty and involving in the country’s internal affairs. And also at the same time, India must avoid being seen as its bilateral engagement is powered by Chinese rivalry. It must look genuine and care for the Maldivian people. The Maldives holds vital importance for India’s Indo-Pacific and South Asia foreign policy. Having smaller countries like the Maldives on its side will give it an edge over other rivals in South Asia and the Indian Ocean in general.
[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India, via Wikimedia Commons]
*Chhotelal Kumar is a scholar at CPS JNU, New Delhi. His interest lies in South Asia, and he has published several articles on multiple platforms. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.