In his maiden foreign visit after winning the elections, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih arrived at New Delhi this week to strengthen the momentum gained by India–Maldives relations. The visit assumes high importance as it is set against the backdrop of a seeming recalibration of ties between the two states after the fallout of the Abdulla Yameen government. As the newly-elected government takes its seat in Male, its objectives would be to rescue the reeling economy from a soaring debt crisis, alongside maintaining a foreign policy balance between India and China. For India, it is an opportunity to build on the goodwill created by Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit and tilt the scales back in its favor, offsetting Beijing in the race for regional influence.
During the ongoing visit, India and Maldives have inked four important agreements bordering on the areas of – visa facilitation, cultural cooperation, improvement of the ecosystem for development of agribusiness, information and technology along with electronics and communication. The key highlight of the visit involves a $ 1.4 Billion assistance from India in the form of budgetary support, currency swap and line of credit for social and economic development. The two heads of the states also reiterated their commitment in strengthening trade, people to people contacts and ensuring stability in the Indian Ocean Region aligning to mutual interests.
Relations between New Delhi and Male slumped to an all-time low recently with the repressive emergency imposed by the Yameen government earlier this year. However, the gradual dip in India-Maldives ties has been characterized by a parallel rise of China-Maldives relations since 2013. While Beijing did not have an official embassy in Male till 2012, its present investments in the Maldives amounts to more than a billion. China has landed its geo-economic potential in the island with major projects like upgradation of the international airport and the construction of a bridge, named as the China-Maldives friendship bridge, linking the airport to the capital. While China gained an upper hand in Maldives, India, the erstwhile security provider, was relegated to being a dormant observer. Indian company, GMR suffered from an unceremonious scrapping of the project while India was asked to withdraw helicopters and personnel which were a part of security assistance along with visa denial for Indians.
New Delhi on its part raised strong concerns but categorically objected to sending boots on the ground despite requests from various quarters. While India has previously intervened in the Maldives, it chose strategic patience this time around, learning lessons from Sri Lanka and more recently, Nepal. The elections did bring about a surprise defeat for Abdulla Yameen which has tilted the balance back to India. However, considering India’s situation, strategic patience was left as the only option because of three reasons. First, intervening in the Maldives would not have been wise as it would have tampered with the polity of the state inciting anti-India sentiments, a big-bully attitude that India often confronts in the neighborhood. Second, with a considerable Chinese backing for the erstwhile government, India’s intervention would have been on slippery grounds. Third, India does not have the economic leverage to offset the Chinese advantage when it comes to financial investments.
The turn of the regime in the Maldives has shifted a few lines over the last month. President Solih has promised to stick to the “India First” policy abandoned by his predecessor, calling India the “closest friend”. The recent agreements look to undo the souring of the ties while institutional processes like joint defence training have also taken their course. India on its part has given special guest privilege to President Solih and assured a helping hand in the reconstruction of the state’s economy. India would do best to ensure that it emphasizes on project delivery along with development assistance with no strings attached, unlike the Chinese. While the Chinese have been throwing investments, it has a record of using debt dependency for its geopolitical advantage. India should ideally build an alternative model of engagement rather than to replace the Chinese presence in the Maldives.
However, the reset in India-Maldives ties cannot turn the clock back to before 2012 because China has established a foothold in the island nation. While the present government may look for better relations with India, it certainly cannot afford to abandon its relations with China which has invested heavily in the nation. Although the present government might review the policies of the earlier government when it comes to engagements with China, it would still be an important stakeholder from here on.
India–Maldives ties hint on two important trends emerging in South Asia. First, India’s relations with its neighbors now have an external factor – China. While India seeks to play a greater role in the region, the emerging Chinese footprint will influence New Delhi’s roadmaps in the future. Barely 1200 km from the Indian mainland, New Delhi has its apprehensions of Male turning into another Chinese pearl. Second, it is a seeming trend that India’s policy options are becoming increasingly regime dependent in the neighboring countries- a trend that is visible in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and now the Maldives, whereby regimes tend to favor either of the two states – India or China.
The balance between continuity and change in India’s foreign policy will be tested in Maldives, a manifestation of a theatre of Sino-Indian competition coupled with an unstable polity and a debt-ridden economy.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, India. He is a Visiting Faculty at Amity University, Kolkata and a Research Assistant at Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata.