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India & China both Wooing Maldives ; By Jai Kumar Verma

Article Courtesy : Aviation and Defence Universe

Article : 10/2023

Affluent Indians flock the untouched beaches for luxury holidays, tourism between the two nations is a real revenue generator but very few know that Maldives is a major strategic partner both regionally and globally. Why should a small archipelago nation which is hardly 70 nautical miles away from Minicoy Island in India’s Lakshadweep archipelago, comprising of about 1,190 coral islands formed around 26 atolls which are spread over 90,000 square kilometres, occupy such an important geo-strategic position in world and in the Indian Ocean?

Traditionally New Delhi has had close relations with Male, however lately China which wants to expand its sway all over the world, especially in Indian Ocean Region has started increasing its influence under the garb of constructing infrastructure projects in Maldives.

Recently all eyes were on Maldives when Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was in Male early this month. During his visit he along with his Maldivian counterpart inaugurated Ekatha harbour, gifted Patrol vessels and two defence platforms to Maldives. The fast patrol vessel would enhance its maritime security. The joint communique issued after his three-day visit stressed the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in the region. Now a days India is also emphasising on the export of defence equipment and Maldives may like to import Indian defence items.

Maldives is important for USA too because of its proximity with Diego Garcia. Maldives and USA signed a defence agreement in 2020. USA is the first country after India with which Maldives signed a defence agreement and India welcomed this development in the region. Male and Tokyo also share a warm and close relationship and former welcomed the formation of Quad and latter’s presence in it.

The archipelago nation is significant as it is located near Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Hormuz, and Strait of Malacca. However, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom who remained the President of the country from 17 November 2013 to 16 November 2018 adopted an anti-India and pro-China policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives from September 14-16, 2014. The visit was projected as a historic visit as it was the first visit of a Chinese President since diplomatic relations were established between both the countries in 1972. A 100 member Chinese business delegation was a part of this visit too.

The visiting President emphasised the need of connectivity and proposed Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) which is a part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). President Gayoom who wanted to have close relations with China accepted the proposal as Chinese side pleaded that MSRI would enhance trade and tourism. Besides MSRI both sides agreed to develop several other important projects.

China considers India as its potential enemy hence it also wants to encircle India.

The main projects included Laamu Link Road Project which connected four islands and was approximately 15 Kilometres long. The project was over in October 2016. Hulhumale bridge project which created jobs and business opportunities to the residents of reclaimed island of Hulhumale. China also agreed to construct 1500 houses across nine coral islands. Besides these projects Beijing also agreed to construct other projects including expansion of Ibrahim Nasir international airport, Greater Male power station project etc.

China is also involved in several other projects including construction of special economic zones, developing telecommunication networks, renewable energy projects etc. Both the countries also signed free trade area in 2015. Maldives is pivotal for Indian Ocean strategy of China and also hopes to have an ally in case the South China Sea issue heats up.

China’s Maldivian good-will strategy is with the aim to diminish India’s influence on the archipelago nation. China considers India as its potential enemy hence it also wants to encircle India. As China has increased its influence on Maldives during the regime of Abdulla Yameen it also wanted to replace USA from the region. Beijing projected it as Male’s all-weather friend and a trusted ally than any other country including India and USA.

Nevertheless, Abdulla Yameen was defeated in 2018 elections and Ibrahim Solih became the president of the country. Solih as a true nationalist who understands the value of India as a true friend and started curbing Chinese projects. He has moved away from the Joint Ocean Observation Station situated in Makunudhoo in North Western Maldives which was built with Chinese assistance.

India-Maldives relations always remained strong however the present Indian government strengthened its relations with Maldives under “Neighbourhood First” policy while Maldivian government pursues “India First” policy.

China understood that the present regime would not favour Beijing hence in January 2022 on the occasion of 50th anniversary of the establishment of Maldives-China diplomatic relations, State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Male and held talks with his counterpart. Both the countries have signed five important agreements including (i) Mutual Visa Exemption between both the countries (ii) Completion of China aided Micro-Grid Sea-water Desalination Project (iii) The Chinese aided projects on areas such as infrastructure, social and other areas would not be stopped. (iv) China-Maldives Friendship bridge would not be stopped. (v) Hospital assistance project would also not be disturbed.

China successfully disturbed the close relations between India and Maldives during the regime of Abduullah Yameen who remained President of the country from 2013 to 2018. Yameen, who is anti-India, favoured China in delivering infrastructure projects. India’s concern has been the rising influence of China in Sri Lanka, Maldives and other countries in the region. China which has deep pockets, aims to increase its influence rapidly, has enticed Maldives and other countries through trade agreements, investments, and giant infrastructural projects.

India-Maldives relations always remained strong however the present Indian government strengthened its relations with Maldives under “Neighbourhood First” policy while Maldivian government pursues “India First” policy. Both countries have constituted joint working group to counter the rising menace of terrorism, extremism, and radicalisation. It was decided to have joint patrolling in sea, aerial surveillance, and exchange of intelligence.

Both countries also agreed to augment their capability in the field of maritime security.

India is also trying to take part in climate change projects which are going through under the aegis of United Nations. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came in power in November 2018 and in 2019 India gave $1.4 billion as budgetary assistance and $ 800 million Line of Credit. This assistance was people centric as the money has to be used for water and sanitation in several islands. Delhi also granted $5.5 million for High Impact Community Development Projects and $6.9 million for development of community infrastructure, safety of environment and development of educational institutions. India also supplied Covid-19 vaccines in 2021.

India’s has multidimensional relations with Maldives and has also constructed a cricket stadium and hospital in Hulhumale, a port project in Gulhifalhu etc. India also launched water and sewerage projects in 34 islands of Maldives. India’s terms of contract are much mild and transparent in comparison to China’s terms of contract.

However anti-India lobby in Maldives which gets assistance from China and Pakistan always criticises and condemns India. They have also launched “India out” campaign as they allege that India infringes Maldives sovereignty by keeping Indian defence personnel in the archipelago nation. Nonetheless Solih government tried to convince anti India forces that India is Maldives’ reliable neighbour and a close ally.

On the other hand, Chinese loans and contracts lacks transparency and generally it is a debt trap. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and few African countries are facing repayment problems with Chinese loans. Maldivian government has a loan of $600 million of Beijing and private companies of Maldives owe loan of $900 million on the guarantee of Maldivian government.

India as a genuine friend helped former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 1988 when there was coup attempt by mercenaries. Both countries have a defence pact under which India installed 26 radars on important Maldivian atolls. India also placed a Dhruv helicopter in the country and established a military hospital.

The Presidential elections in Maldives are scheduled to be held on 9 September 2023. The present President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih who understands the importance of having cordial relations with India, would be contesting elections as a nominee of Maldivian Democratic Party. Former president Abdullah Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives would be the main rival. Besides him former Minister of Defence and National Security, Mohamed Nazim of the Maldives National Party and a candidate from Jumhooree Party would also contest the Presidential elections. China and Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan would extend all types of support and assistance to Yameen as he is a known China supporter and an India baiter. They would also try to arouse anti India sentiments in the country. The forthcoming elections are very crucial for India Maldives relations. Let’s wait and watch.

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and Life Member of United Services Institute of India and member of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S)

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