Restoring Bridges Over Troubled Waters: Indo-Maldivian Rapprochement


(MENAFN- NewsIn) By K/Daily News

Colombo, May 14: India and the Maldives had visibly drifted apart at the end of 2023 as a result of the change of regime in Male. The incoming regime led by Mohamed Muizzu was openly anti-India and pro-China and was taking concrete steps to distance itself from India and move closer to China.

To give effect to the“India Out” campaign waged by Muizzu's Peoples' National Congress (PNC) and its ally, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), India was asked to withdraw, by May 10, the 76 Indian military personnel who were running an inter-island medical air evacuation service in the Maldivian archipelago.

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The Muizzu government also announced that it would review all other agreements that the previous pro-Indian government led by Ibrahim Solih had signed with India, including one to do a hydrographic survey. Muizzu's election campaign slogan was“retrieve Maldivian sovereignty from foreign hegemony” and the hegemon he had in mind was India.

While disentangling himself from India's embrace, Muizzu embraced China. Soon after getting elected as President, he visited Beijing, avoiding the customary first visit to New Delhi. In Beijing, he signed 20 agreements including one to move towards a Sino-Maldivian“strategic partnership” which, understandably, raised the hackles in New Delhi.

Given the leeway Muizzu gave to expressions of an anti-Indian sentiment, three junior Ministers used the social media handle“X” to utter profanities against the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This touched off a spontaneous call for the boycott of the Maldives by Indian tourists. And Modi himself urged Indians to visit the Lakshadweep islands off the Indian coast.

Since Indian tourists constituted the single largest group (30%) among foreign tourists heading for the Maldives, the Maldivian tourism sector felt the pinch given by the Indian boycott and appealed for a halt to the standoff. Tourism accounts for 30% of the Maldives' GDP.

Subsequently, both India and the Maldives toned down their anger. The Maldives asked India to continue its development projects in the archipelago.

New Delhi was funding the Greater Male connectivity project, billed as the largest infrastructure initiative in the archipelago. It involves construction of a 6.7-kilometer-long bridge and a causeway connecting the capital city, Male, with the islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi.

India is also helping Maldives build 4,000 homes and has extended a U$ 100 million line of credit for other infrastructure projects. The two countries have agreements for cooperation in cybersecurity, disaster management and fishing zone forecast capacity.

Rapprochement

India and the Maldives now appear to be inching their way towards a rapprochement. What is particularly noteworthy in this development is that it is taking place even though Muizzu's Peoples' National Congress (PNC) secured a comfortable majority in the recent parliamentary elections. The PNC had marginalized the pro-India Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) at the polls.

India not only played it cool but struck a friendly posture. India agreed to replace its military personnel with civilians in the medical evacuation project. By May 10, all the 76 military personnel had left. The evacuation of the troops and their replacement by Indian civilians were carried out to mutual satisfaction. The two Indian helicopters and Dornier aircraft are now being operated by Indian civilians, Defence Minister Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon confirmed.

Ghassan assured the Maldivian media that the Indian civilians would
be accountable to the Maldives' Ministry of Defence.“We have looked at their passports and their backgrounds and we can confirm today that they are civilians,” Ghassan added.

Despite the standoff over the Indian troops, India set aside INR 770 crores (US$ 92 million) for the Maldives in its 2024-25 budget. On April 5, India allowed the export of certain quantities of essential commodities for the year 2024-25 at the request of the Maldives government.

Zameer's Visit

Late last week, the Maldivian Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer had gone on his first official visit to India. In talks held with his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar, Zameer emphasised the importance of nurturing bilateral ties“based on mutual interests and reciprocal sensitivity.”

Zameer told Jaishankar reassuringly:“Our relationships are built on a solid historical foundation, going back to when India was among the first to recognize our independence in 1965,” highlighting ongoing discussions about economic and defence cooperation. He also noted the significant role of Indian grants and developmental aid in the Maldives.

The website Maldives Republic reported that Zameer requested that India roll over US$150 million of the debt Maldives owned India. India had given Maldives US$200 million as budget support during the Ibrahim Solih administration in 2019. In January this year, US$50 million was repaid by the Maldives.

“We have asked for the remaining amount to be rolled over and the Indian government has not asked us for anything in return,” Zameer said.“I gather that the External Affairs Ministry has said that it always looks positively at the needs of the country and that it will always help us with significant needs and has done what we needed in the past. So we have been given the green light on it one-on-one,” he added.

Zameer said that the Indian doctors, who had been working at Senehiyaa military hospital in Malé since September 2012, would remain and that was at the request of the Maldivian Defence Forces.

The Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar told Zameer that India is committed to maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region through its 'Neighbourhood First' policy, underlining the mutual benefits of close cooperation. He however urged the Muizzu regime to ease tensions and improve the two nations' relationship.

“Our partnership extends beyond immediate geopolitical concerns, encompassing significant economic and humanitarian dimensions,” Jaishankar said and added that India has recently increased the export quotas of essential commodities to the Maldives, reflecting a commitment to supporting the Maldivian economy.

The discussions also touched on regional security issues, with both parties keen on maintaining peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region.

The Jaishankar-Zameer talks have paved the way for President Muizzu's upcoming visit to India. Diplomats from both sides are preparing for President Muizzu's anticipated visit, the dates for which have not been fixed yet.

When Muizzu and Narendra Modi meet, they will tackle not just Indo-Maldivian relations but also the Maldives' relations with China, in the context of the clashing geopolitical interests of India and China in the Indian Ocean.

Of the two regional powers, India has a greater interest and stake in the Maldives because of the close proximity of the Maldivian archipelago to India's Lakshadweep islands, were the island of Minicoy is being developed as an Indian naval air station.

China Factor

In 2013, the Maldives joined China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build ports and highways and expand trade. According to the US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), since joining the BRI, the Maldives has borrowed some U$ 1.4 billion from Chinese banks, which now makes up 20% of its public debt. China has made several large infrastructure investments in the Maldives, including the US$ 200 million China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which connects the islands of Hulhulé and Hulhumalé with the capital, Malé.

China-Maldives bilateral trade in the first 11 months of 2023 reached nearly U$700 million, up 75 percent year on year. According to the records from the Indian High Commission, growing from modest beginnings, India-Maldives bilateral trade crossed the US$ 500 million in 2022.

Despite growing ties with China, Muizzu does not want to replace India with China.“Rather he seeks to use the two countries' tenuous relationship as leverage to secure the best deal,” CFR says in its assessment.

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