India Maldives Relations

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Context: After Six Years, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka to Revive Trilateral Maritime Security Forum as National security advisor Ajit Doval travelled to Sri Lanka to attend the meeting.

Relevance: GS II- International Relations- India and its neighborhood.

Background 

  • India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links steeped in antiquity.
  • Except for a brief period between February 2012 to November 2018, relations have been close, cordial and multi‐dimensional. India was among the first to recognize the Maldives after its independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with the country.  
  • Maldives’ proximity to the west coast of India (it is barely 70 nautical miles away from Minicoy and 300 nautical miles away from India’s West Coast), and its situation at the hub of commercial sea‐lanes running through the Indian Ocean (particularly the 8° N and 1 ½° N channels) imbues it with significant strategic importance to India.  
  • Maldives occupies a very special place in the ‘Neighborhood First Policy’ and the ‘SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision of the Government of India.
  • ‘India First’ has been a stated policy of the Government of the Maldives and President Solih, ever since he assumed office in November 2018, has acted on this policy in right earnest.   
  • India’s relationship with the Maldives is free of any politically contentious issues. The one‐time claim of Maldives to Minicoy Island was resolved by the Maritime Boundary Treaty of 1976 between the two countries, whereby the Maldives has recognized Minicoy as an integral part of India.   
  • India’s prompt assistance during the 1988 coup attempt, led to the development of trust and long‐term and friendly bilateral relations with the Maldives. The immediate withdrawal of Indian troops when they were no longer required assuaged fears of any Indian dominance or territorial aspirations.  
  • India was the first to assist the Maldives during the 2004 Tsunami as well as the water crisis in Malé in December 2014. Under Operation NEER, India immediately rushed bottled drinking water to Malé utilising Air Force aircraft and Navy ships.
  • These three incidents (in 1988, 2004 and 2014) had established the advantages of India’s proximity and capacity to come to Maldives’ rescue in distress vis‐à‐vis any other country and are widely acknowledged by the government and people of Maldives.

About the Maldives

  • The Republic of the Maldives, which is located in the Indian Ocean, is an archipelago comprising approximately 1,200 islands with a geographical spread of over 90,000 sq. km. Incorporating some 26 atolls, the Maldives is one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries and is a 99 per cent water-nation.
  • However, with a total landmass of only 298 square kilometres (sq km), it is also the smallest country in Asia and is categorised as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS)
  • Malé, the capital, is located within the Malé atoll, which itself is roughly in the centre of the archipelago (Figure 1 refers).  Interestingly, with an average elevation of 1.5 metres (4 feet 11 inches), Maldives is the lowest-lying country on the planet. 
  • With the highest elevation being just 2.3 metres (7 feet 7 inches) above sea level, the archipelago has the world’s lowest naturally-occurring ‘highest-point’! 
  • In view of these natural traits, the existential threats from environmental catastrophes, such as tsunamis and sea-level rise, loom large over the Maldives.

 

Why is the Maldives Important for India?
  • The Maldives is an important member of SAARC. It is strategically located along major sea lanes in the Indian Ocean.
  • A significant portion of world trade takes place through the Indian Ocean. All the energy supplies coming from Gulf nations pass through this area.
  • Maldives ensures uninterrupted energy supplies to countries like China, Japan, and India.
  • The Maldives is geographically positioned like a ‘tollgate’ between the western Indian Ocean chokepoints of the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz on the one hand, and the eastern Indian Ocean chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca on the other.
  • Thus, while the islands in the vicinity of the Maldives have broad strategic significance for global maritime trade, they are of particular importance to India.  50% of India’s external trade and eighty per cent of its energy imports transit these islands.
  • It is obvious, therefore, that any significant Chinese presence in this region has the potential to impede trade movement that is vital to India’s economic interests, and such a possibility must be guarded against
  • Maldives has extended its support for India’s candidature for permanent membership of an expanded and reformed UN Security Council. 
  • The Maldives also has reiterated support for India’s candidature for a non-permanent seat for the year 2020-21.
  • India’s interests in the Maldives range from political stability in the neighbourhood, and protection of its investments and trade to the prevention of state and non-state forces which are harmful to Indian interests 
  • The Maldives is strategically too important for India as there's nothing India can do in the Maldives to affect Chinese security, but there's a lot the Chinese can do in the Maldives to affect Indian security.
  • While sea lines of communication in the vicinity of the Maldives have broader strategic significance for global maritime trade, these are of vital importance for India since nearly 50% of India’s external trade and 80% of her energy imports transit these westward SLOCs in the Arabian Sea.
  • A favourable and positive maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is essential for the fulfilment of India’s strategic priority.
Concerns for India
  • India should be concerned about the protests as well as the occasional protest within the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of Mr Solih.
  • There are apparent strains between Mohamed Nasheed, who was the nation’s first president elected under a multiparty democracy and Mr Yameen.
  • This strain could affect the MDP during the run-up to the 2023 presidential polls.
  • Also, Mr Nasheed’s on-again-off-again call for a changeover to a ‘parliamentary form of government’ can polarise the over politicised nation even more.
Bilateral Assistance
  • Since 1988, defence and security have been a major area of cooperation between India and Maldives. India has been assisting the Maldives in capacity building by meeting its requirements of defence training and equipment.
  • India provides the largest number of training opportunities for Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), meeting around 70% of their defence training requirements. A comprehensive Action Plan for Defence was also signed in April 2016 to consolidate defence partnership.  

Key projects in the Defence Sector

  • Key projects in the defence sector include Composite Training Centre for MNDF, Coastal Radar Surveillance System and construction of new Ministry of Defence Headquarters.

Capacity Building/Training

  • India has trained over 1250 MNDF trainees over the past 10 years and has offered 175 training vacancies in 2019‐20. MNDF has also been participating in various mil‐to‐mil activities such as sea‐rider programme, adventure camps, sailing regatta etc.
  • India has offered to depute Mobile Training Teams (MTT) based on MNDF requirements and to train MNDF personnel for UN peace‐keeping operations at CUNPK. Indian Navy has deployed 10‐member Marine Commando MTT to the Maldives in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and also provided MNDF with helo‐borne vertical insertion capability.  
  • Defence cooperation also extends to the areas of Joint Exercises, Maritime Domain Awareness, gifting of hardware, infrastructure development, etc.  

Institutional Mechanisms

  • Annual Defence Cooperation Dialogue at the level of Defence Secretary was initiated in July 2016. However, after the first edition in 2016 Government of Maldives cancelled the 2nd edition in November 2017, which was finally held in January 2019 after a change of government in the Maldives.
  • Annual Joint mil‐to‐mil Staff Talks were started in February 2016 and the 4th edition was held at New Delhi in 2019. MNDF continues to participate in various fora such as IONS, Goa Maritime Conclave and Goa Symposium.
  • Defence Minister Mariya Didi visited India in January 2019 and also in February 2020 for Defence Expo in Lucknow(UP). Chief of Defence Force Major Abdulla Shamaal also visited India in January 2019 and July 2019.
  • In August this year, following a meeting between the Indian and Maldivian foreign ministers, India announced a $500 million package for a key infrastructure project along with an additional $ 350 million in aid.

Disaster Management

  • GoI had provided large‐scale assistance to the Maldives in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and during the 2014 Male water crisis. India previously provided pollution dispersant to MNDF Coast Guard in 2016 and Indian Coast Guard would now be providing oil spill control equipment. India has also offered customised training for MNDF Fire and Rescue Service in India. 

Covid related Assistance

  • Maldives has been the biggest beneficiary of GoI COVID relief among its neighbours. This assistance includes:
    • A 14 member Rapid Response Medical team including Anaesthetist, Pulmonologist, Cardiologist, Public health care specialist, nurses, lab technicians etc. from AFMS was deployed in the Maldives from 13‐21 March 2020 to guide and train the Maldivian authorities and personnel in tackling Corona threat.
    • India donated essential medicines to meet 3 months requirement of Maldives. 317 cartons weighing approx. 5,500 kg were sent on 14 March 2020
  • Operation Sanjeevani: As part of GoI's efforts to help friendly countries in tackling Covid‐19 threat, a special IAF plane airlifted 6.2 tonnes of essential medical supplies from India to the Maldives on 2 April 2020.
  • A currency swap of USD 150 million was approved by RBI in April 2020 to help Maldives tide over Covid‐19 inflicted economic crisis.
  • On April 20, Prime Minister had a telephonic conversation with President of Maldives on the challenges posed by Covid‐19. Prime Minister assured the Maldivian President of continued Indian support for minimising the health and economic impact of COVID‐19.
  • In order to assist the Maldives in its economic recovery, India has provided financial assistance of US$ 250 million to the Maldives in September 2020, through investment by the State Bank of India in Maldives Government bonds of the same value on concessional terms.
Chinese Influence in the Maldives
  • China in pursuit of its own geo-economic goals views it as one of the key components of its ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative (BRI) and is actively establishing its presence in this strategically positioned island-state by involving itself in infrastructure projects in the archipelago. 
  • China’s BRI, involving the Maldives amongst other IOR island- and littoral-States, has certainly widened the current Chinese sphere of influence within this strategically-critical oceanic expanse. 
  • As such, these activities have the potential to adversely impact India’s own interests.
  • Abdulah Yameen steered Malé away from Delhi and towards Beijing, courting Chinese investment under BRI — the trillion-dollar global infrastructure program announced shortly before Yameen took office.
  • Before late 2011, Beijing didn't even have an embassy in Malé. But under the BRI, the Maldives rose to prominence as an “important link” in the Maritime Silk Road — an ancient sea route connecting China with Europe and Africa.
  • In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the first visit by a Chinese head of state to the island nation, paving the way for a slew of Chinese investment projects that would break ground in the following years, including the $800 million expansion of its international airport in 2016, a public housing project of 7,000 apartments on the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé near Malé, and, of course, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.

Mounting Chinese debt

  • Chinese infrastructure projects like the bridge, however, have also left behind a mountain of debt.
  • After incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih took office in November 2018, his government had a hard time figuring out how much the Maldives owed China. Its central bank governor believed the government directly owed $600 million to Beijing, but there was also $900 million in loans issued to Maldivian companies under sovereign guarantees — which the Maldivian government would be obliged to pay back if borrowers default on their loans.

Warming ties under Solih

  • Under the new government, the Maldives has increasingly looked to India, with Delhi equally eager to repair bilateral ties. According to India's foreign ministry, Delhi's total pledged financial assistance to the Maldives has surpassed $2 billion since Solih came to power.
  • A month into Solih's term in office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced $1.4 billion financial assistance to the Maldives amid worries over its soaring Chinese debts. And in August, India announced a $500 million package to fund the Greater Malé Connectivity Project, linking Malé to the islands of Vilingili, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi through a series of bridges and causeways. The package consists of a $100 million grant and a $400 million soft loan, or line of credit.
  • According to India's Exim Bank, this type of soft loans are issued to the Maldives at a low-interest rate of 1.75%, with a credit period of 20 years. In addition, India pledged $250 million of budgetary support to the Maldives to boost its coronavirus-battered economy.
The balancing act of Maldives
  • While leaning closer to India, Maldives cannot afford to alienate Beijing — partly due to a large amount of debt it owes and its reliance on China for income. China is the largest source of tourists to the Maldives and a key market for the recovery of its tourism sector after the pandemic.
  • Solih's government has repeatedly assured Beijing of its commitment to maintaining good relations.
  • Experts say that the Maldives is likely to welcome further Chinese investment in the future provided it was not in areas seen as too politically controversial.
  • At the same time, the Maldives is reaching out to countries like the US and Japan.
  • In September, Japan extended a $47.5 million loan to support the Maldives in the Covid-19 crisis, the largest concessional loan it has ever given the island nation. And during a five-day tour in South and Southeast Asia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US would open an embassy in Malé. The announcement came after the US and the Maldives signed a defence agreement in September.
Conclusion
  • India has been a timely friend for the Maldives, which is evident from numerous efforts by New Delhi in helping maintain stability in Male  From “Operation Cactus” in 1988 to fending off a severe water crisis in the island nation, India has played the role of a responsible neighbour
  • It is in India’s interest to continue with such critical engagements and work toward building confidence and assurances to the extent that the Maldives emerges out of its “Big Brother Syndrome”
  • Moreover, strengthening democratic institutions, infrastructure support, and capacity building should remain India’s priorities in engagement with the Maldives. The stable Maldives is essential for a stable neighbourhood across South Asia.



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