Reciprocal Alliances: Unpacking the Mutual Dependence of India and Maldives

Diplomatic ties between India and the Maldives appear to have encountered a period of strain. The once robust relationship between the two nations seems to have entered a challenging phase. Recent developments suggest a degree of tension or disagreement that requires careful attention and resolution.

The chronology of events in the strained relations between these two neighbours unfolded as follows: First, there were controversial remarks from Maldivian politicians on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lakshadweep visit, leading to a ‘boycott Maldives’ campaign on Indian social media. Subsequently, a joint press communiqué with China was issued, committing to “elevating strategic cooperation” between Maldives and China. Following this, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu, upon returning from China, stated that despite being a small country, Maldives “won’t be bullied.” He emphasized that the “Indian Ocean does not belong to any one country” and asserted that Maldives “is not in anyone’s backyard.” Furthermore, the recent ultimatum issued by the President to India, urging the withdrawal of its military by 15th March, has added significant strain to the already fragile relations between the two nations. The unexpected nature of this appeal has caught many by surprise, exacerbating the existing challenges in their diplomatic ties.

The Evolution of Diplomatic Relations

India and the Maldives share deep-rooted connections encompassing ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, and commercial ties, reflecting a relationship steeped in antiquity. These nations enjoy a close, cordial, and multi-dimensional partnership that spans various facets of bilateral cooperation. India’s commitment to the Maldives is underscored by historical significance, as it was among the first countries to extend recognition to the Maldives following its independence in 1965. 

After gaining independence, Maldives joined the United Nations in 1965 and commenced efforts to strengthen its diplomatic ties, particularly with neighbouring countries such as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In a significant development in 1978, the Indian International Airport Authority secured the contract to expand the runway at Hulule Airport.

The bilateral relationship between India and Maldives reached a crucial turning point in the 1980s. The landmark ‘Treaty of Friendship’ was signed in 1981, solidifying the ties between the two nations. However, the late 1980s also witnessed a dramatic episode when a coup was attempted against the then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. India swiftly responded with ‘Operation Cactus’ to foil the coup, bringing the two countries closer in their cooperative efforts. Despite India’s proactive measures, President Gayoom maintained a lukewarm stance toward India, and, notably, he sought to leverage China over India. 

In what ways is Maldives important to India?

Situated just 70 nautical miles away from Minicoy and approximately 300 nautical miles from India’s West Coast, the Maldives holds a pivotal position in the maritime landscape. Its strategic location at the crossroads of major commercial sea-lanes traversing the Indian Ocean bestows upon it profound significance for India. The Maldives emerges as a crucial element in India’s maritime security calculus, serving as a linchpin in the overall security scenario within India’s periphery in the Indian Ocean. The strength and stability of the Maldives’ maritime domain are intricately intertwined with India’s broader security considerations in the region. As a result, fostering strong ties and ensuring the maritime well-being of the Maldives stands as a strategic imperative for India in safeguarding its interests and maintaining regional stability.

One crucial aspect underscoring the significance of the Maldives for India is its strategic importance in defence cooperation. Recognizing the strategic value of a secure Maldives, India has made substantial investments in bolstering the country’s security infrastructure, primarily through the comprehensive training of its defence forces. In fact, an estimated 70% of Maldives’ defence training is conducted by India, either on the islands themselves or within India’s esteemed Military Academies.

Over the past decade, India has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to enhancing Maldives’ defence capabilities by training more than 1400 personnel from the Maldivian National Defence Force. The collaboration extends beyond training to the provision of critical resources, as the Indian Navy has supplied aircraft and helicopters to the Maldivian defence forces for aerial surveillance. 

Looking ahead, India envisions establishing a coastal radar system in the Maldives, a strategic move aimed at vigilantly monitoring activities within the Indian Ocean. This proactive measure underscores India’s commitment to regional security and its recognition of the Maldives as a pivotal partner in safeguarding shared maritime interests.

What are the reasons behind Maldives’ dependence on India?

Over the past few decades, tourism has served as the cornerstone of the Maldives’ economic expansion. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, approximately 45,000 individuals were employed in tourist resorts in 2019, constituting 7% of the employed population.

Despite this relatively modest percentage, the economic impact of tourism in the Maldives is substantial. In 2019, the industry generated a staggering USD 3.17 billion, contributing significantly to the country’s economic landscape. Notably, this revenue accounted for 28% of the Maldives Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and an impressive 60% of its foreign exchange earnings.
As the closest neighbour, India plays a pivotal role in driving tourist arrivals to the Maldives, with the number of Indian tourists experiencing a remarkable sevenfold increase over the past 12 years, spanning from 2011 to 2023. Notably, in 2019, nearly a quarter of all tourists in the Maldives hailed from India, underscoring the substantial impact of Indian tourists on the Maldivian tourism industry. This surge in Indian visitors is not only reflected in the sheer numbers but is also evident in the significant rise in market share during this period.

Source: Ministry of Tourism, Maldives. 

The increasing dominance of Indian tourists in the Maldives’ tourism sector highlights the nation’s growing dependence on them for vital foreign currency. This reliance underscores the deep economic ties between the Maldives and India, emphasizing the need to nurture strong bilateral relations, especially in tourism, to ensure sustained economic growth.

On the trade front, India has significantly strengthened its position as a crucial trade partner for the Maldives. Data reveals that since 2017, India has consistently represented over 10 percent of the Maldives’ total imports. Notably, amid the challenges of the pandemic in 2020, India emerged as the primary source of imports for the Maldives, contributing exports worth $268.05 million. However, in 2021, India slipped to the third position, trailing behind Oman and the UAE. Over the broader period from 2013-14 to 2022-23, India has exported goods totalling $2.6 billion to the Maldives while importing $644 million from the Maldives. Key components of Indian exports include essential items such as refined petroleum, edible vegetables, pharmaceutical products, iron and steel, cement, machinery, electrical appliances, and edible products of animal origin.

Beyond trade, India has become the preferred destination for Maldivians seeking specialized medical treatments and surgeries that may be either unavailable or limited in their home country. Notably, in 2021, Maldivians constituted the third-largest group of individuals visiting India for medical treatment. The popularity of India among Maldivians for healthcare stems from the factors of proximity, familiarity, and affordability.
Moreover, India plays a pivotal role in providing higher education opportunities for Maldivian students, offering scholarships and facilitating enrolment in esteemed Indian institutions. Additionally, in moments of crisis, India has consistently proven to be a vital ally and a dependable partner. This is evident in its significant contributions during various disasters, including the 2004 tsunami, the 2014 drinking water crisis, and the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, the heightened Chinese engagement in the Maldives appears to significantly impact the bilateral relations between these two nations. This influence became notably evident during a recent state visit by the Maldivian president to China, where both countries took a significant step forward by elevating their relationship to the status of a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.’ Amid the deepening diplomatic relations between China and the Maldives, India strategically benefits from its natural geographical advantage. In the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean region, China grapples with the ‘tyranny of distance.’ To illustrate, the Maldivian capital, Male, lies approximately 6000 km away from the nearest Chinese port, Hainan, while it is only 700 km from the Indian port of Kochi. This significant variance in proximity underscores India’s strategic upper hand in this crucial part of the region, enhancing its geopolitical influence and positioning.

In conclusion, both countries naturally complement each other due to their close geographical proximity. The Maldives’ initiative to diversify its import sources may face economic challenges as it incurs additional transportation costs, rendering certain imports economically unfeasible. Conversely, India values the strategic importance of having the Maldives as a partner due to its pivotal location in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it is advisable to enhance efforts to strengthen and normalize the bilateral relationship. The existing dispute poses a threat to the interests of both nations, emphasizing the need for proactive measures to swiftly resolve the issues at hand. Failing to do so could result in a significant deterioration of their relationship, with detrimental consequences for both countries. It is imperative for them to engage in diplomatic initiatives and dialogue to ensure a mutually beneficial resolution and foster a positive trajectory in their bilateral ties.

[Photo by the President’s Office of the Republic of Maldives, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Rahul M. Lad holds a position as a Visiting Faculty in the Geography Department at Savitribai Phule Pune University in Pune, India.

Ravindra G. Jaybhaye is a Senior Professor at the Department of Geography, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. 

How Strategic Autonomy Played a Central Role in Modi’s Russia Visit?

During the Cold War days, India was the vanguard of the non-aligned movement—a neutral position in the ideological conflict of the superpowers. Neither the...

Rohingya Tragedy: Human Values ​​Must Be Above All

There is no suffering more painful than when humanity is ignored, as experienced by the Rohingya. This tragedy is a clear example of neglect...

India’s Multi-alignment Policy and Its Response to the Ukrainian War

India’s foreign policy under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi firmly stands on the premise that it can serve the country’s national interest...