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How Rajnath’s visit caps India’s comeback in Maldives, deepens Indian Ocean foothold

Union defence minister Rajnath Singh has concluded a three-day visit to Maldives, where he held talks with his Maldivian counterpart Mariam Didi, foreign minister Abdullah Shahid and President Ibrahim Solih. The dialogue nailed the importance of strengthening military ties  between India and Maldives for peace and security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). He also discussed the progress of the various India sponsored developmental projects in Maldives with the President and gifted two ‘Made in India’ vessels- a Fast Patrol Vessel and a Landing Craft Assault ship- to the Maldives National Defence Forces. This is only the most recent in the long slew of friendly overtures by India towards the small island nation, since 2018.

In 2018, Maldives was the site of a national election that grabbed the world’s attention. Framed as a fight between democracy vs authoritarianism and good governance vs political excesses, the results of the election were to have far reaching consequences, not only for Maldives, but for the future of the stability of the South Asian region. In the five years that Abdulla Yameen, from the Progressive Party of Maldives was president, his government had been associated with massive suppression of political dissent in the country as well as a rigid pro-China stance. By the end of his five-year term, he had not only led Maldives into accruing massive amounts of debt from the Chinese but also alienated traditional ally India, as such a strong Chinese presence in the Indian ocean was against India’s strategic interests. Therefore, when despite all odds, the Maldivian Democratic Party candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih became president, it seemed to herald a new era of democracy and development for Maldives, through the resuscitation of bilateral relations between Maldives and India.

Not only had the previous government under Abdulla Yameen given China free reign as far as investments in the islands go, it had also adopted a distinctively anti-India stance. Under him, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) had been signed with Beijing and several infrastructural projects had been financed by China, which ultimately resulted in Maldives accruing a $ 1.4 billion of debt to the Chinese. Maldives had also joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that soured its relations with India further, since India had refused to be a part of the BRI owing to its suspicions about Chinese geopolitical ambitions were veiled under claims of inclusive development.

The new government under president Solih however, seems to have understood the importance of strengthening ties with India as the only way to get out of the financial quagmire, and that accepting Chinese loans on opaque terms had landed them in hole. This is evident from the adoption of the “India First Policy” by president Solih and his government  and ending the FTA with Beijing that had allowed several islands in Maldives to be leased to China, compromising regional security interests in the Indian ocean region.

When it came to power in 2018, the Solih government had a gargantuan task, dealing with the Chinese debt and stabilising the economy during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, India’s support to the new government, paved the way for a new era of Maldivian-Indian relations built on friendship and trust.

India made it clear, right from the start, that it would always be on hand and willing to meet the needs of Maldives as well as the larger region whenever required. Shortly after president Solih’s election, India had extended $ 1.4 billion in aid as budgetary support and a line of credit for the overall development of Maldives. Moreover, during the pandemic, India provided a landing craft and other functional vehicles to the National Defence Force of Maldives. Most recently, last year, President Solih and Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a MoU on cyber security to ensure bilateral cooperation between the two countries on matters of security and defence to ensure peace and stability in the Indian ocean region.

During the same visit, the premiers of both the countries, also inaugurated the construction of the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP).

The project is to have a 6.74 km bridge and causeway that would connect Male to its neighbouring islands. When completed, it would increase connectivity within the nation, resulting in massive economic benefits for entire Maldives. This project, the largest in the island nation, is the centerpiece of India’s investment in Maldives.

Further, the MoU on Indian Grant Assistance for Implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects through local bodies in Maldives, had been signed in 2019, with the launch of 9 community-based development projects. In 2022, seven additional projects for community development were launched, including a mental hospital, a multi sports complex, youth centers, workshops etc. India’s friendly overtures in the recent years have not gone unnoticed by ordinary Maldivians and there is a general feeling of bonhomie and trust as far as any assistance from India is concerned.

The reason for that is the unconditional nature of Indian grants and assistance. Unlike Chinese investments, Indian assistance is characterised by respect for the sovereignty of Maldives as an independent nation-state. From India’s standpoint, development in Maldives is the prerogative of Maldivians and cannot be dictated by a foreign power.

In fact, Rajnath Singh expressed the same sentiments on the occasion of the gifting of the new vessels to Maldives, saying “India offers an enhanced defence partnership to friendly foreign countries, that is accommodative of their national priorities and capacities. We wish to create symbiotic relationships where we can learn from each other, grow together and create a win-win situation for all.” Furthermore, India has not focused all its investments on the Male region, like China. Instead, it has prioritised the overall development of Maldives, with large-scale investments in the north and south

In 2023, the small island nation of Maldives has yet again captured the world’s attention. There is another impending election this year which is yet again anticipated to have drastically different consequences, depending on who wins the election. At stake this time, just like last time, is democracy in Maldives and the peace and stability of the entire Indian ocean region.

Also Read: Vessels to harbour — India bolsters coastal defence of key Indian Ocean ally Maldives