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CWA # 60, 17 October 2018

South Asia
The New Maldives: Advantage India?

  Nasima Khatoon

Although India still has to go long way to be equally capable of China, in the long run, it is the balancing strategy and responsible act of New Delhi as a significant actor, which will fulfil India’s greater interest in Indian Ocean Region

Nasima is a Research Associate at International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP) of National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), IISc Campus, Bangalore

The triumph of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the Presidential election of Maldives’ against the autocratic Abdulla Yameen Gayoom has the potential to change the strategic dynamics of the region. Will the electoral result help New Delhi to reclaim diplomatic gain in Male? Or will it face a tough time to resist significant Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago?

Even before the election result was declared officially, New Delhi welcomes Solih by stating “This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law”. The pro-China president Yameen gave a tough time to New Delhi over the last few months when the latter decided to ‘wait and watch’ the developments rather than reacting.

Recent India-Maldives relations

The slide in Indo-Maldives relations began after February 2018 when president Yameen opposed the Supreme Court’s order to release the opposition leaders including ex-President Mohamed Nasheed of Maldivian Democratic Party and declared a state of emergency in the island country. As India criticised this move, Yameen hardened his anti-India position by diluting numerous elements of bilateral relations. Male unofficially squeeze the work visa for Indians, specifically, Indian workers of non-essential job sector who worked in hotels, the educational institute did not receive a visa for several month. This was followed by a demand from Yameen government to withdraw two Advanced Light Helicopters of Indian Coast Guard and Navy. The helicopters were handed over on 2013 for Surveillance, Search and Rescue (SAR) and coastal patrol of the small archipelago. After repeated demand from Male, talks were ongoing in MEA to withdraw the helicopters but after the election result, MEA and Ministry of Defence can reconsider the decision to regain a strategic foothold in the tiny nation.

As China was making an inroad with various infrastructure project deal and easy loan, the change in government may not satisfy Chinese intension as Chinese infrastructure development projects and few other projects related to BRI are considered as “Debt Trap” by Maldivian Democratic Party’s leaders. The Maldives is another bead in the string of south Asian countries like Malaysia and Sri Lanka where a voter has rejected a government – trapped  under showy Chinese development projects  and high interest easy loan policy that reel the countries under the mountain of debt afterward. The former president, Mohamed Nasheed of MDP has said that new government will audit all infrastructures projects under alleged “land grab” by Chinese, including an $800 million airport renovation and $ 300 million China-Maldives friendship bridge which was sanctioned under Yameen government.

Maldives: What next for India?

The election result has predicted to open a new chapter in India Maldives bilateral ties, as pro Indian former president Mohamed Nasheed is believed to be a potential adviser of the new government. However, according to observers, Chinese presence in the Maldives will remain significant considering China’s large scale investments. In 2017, Maldives signed a free Trade Agreement with China which consequently changed laws allowing foreigners to buy land, which has led to Chinese acquisition of 17 islands for a development project. Also, presently, 70% of Maldives’s total external debt is with China which is expected to rise in future, crippling the archipelago’s tourism based economy – making it increasingly more dependent on China. The Solih government’s foreign policy considering great power dynamics of Indian Ocean and “India first” policy can curb Beijing’s influence and make way for India’s diplomatic hold.

Although India is the basic supplier of goods – medicines and food to the Maldives, India took inaction as policy rather than affecting general Maldivians life by supply cut – a result of a bitter experience of Nepal blockade on 2015. The move seems to work in India’s favour. The change will also deter growing Pakistan’s footprint in Maldives energy sector, resulted by a deal signed under Yameen government between Maldives’s STELCO and Pakistan’s WAPDA. The Pakistan China nexus which could be a great threat to India’s security interest – will be dissuaded.

If the presidential election is likely to bring about positive changes in India-Maldives bilateral ties, New Delhi should further strengthen the diplomatic relations and provide necessary security support to Male. Presence of Indian Coast guard and Navy can be increased for better EEZ surveillance of Maldives and to enhance the presence of Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean Region. Although India still has to go long way to be equally capable of China, in the long run, it is the balancing strategy and responsible act of New Delhi as a significant actor, which will fulfil India’s greater interest in Indian Ocean Region. To achieve this and deter other powers, support of strategically important littoral neighbours is crucial – the Maldives is of no exception.

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