Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) shakes hands with Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih prior to a meeting in New Delhi  on December 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) shakes hands with Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih prior to a meeting in New Delhi on December 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the newly elected president of Maldives, on Tuesday concluded a three-day visit to India. During his first overseas visit since taking office, Solih stayed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official home of the Indian president, which indicated the growing importance of India’s relations with Maldives.

Solih called India the closest friend of Maldives and also its largest trading partner. He also asserted that his government was keen to follow an India-first policy.

In response to this, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated his trust in democratic systems and said this visit would pave the way for new warmth between the two sides.

Solih met with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

The Maldivian president’s visit followed Modi’s visit to his country to attend Solih’s swearing-in ceremony last month.

It was Modi’s first visit to Maldives after a scheduled 2015 trip was canceled because of deteriorating bilateral relations. It was also the first time Modi had attended a swearing-in ceremony of any leader.

The fact that these two leaders have met twice in two months underscores the importance of the relationship and highlights the existing positive momentum.

Since Solih became president, there has been a new direction to India-Maldives relations. Malé appears very keen to gain Indian help in developing the economy.

Before Solih’s visit, Maldivian Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer visited India. It was during his visit that there were discussions about a US$700 million credit line, the largest ever to Maldives, primarily to facilitate moving the Malé Commercial Harbor to Kaafu Thilafushi and its expansion.

Maldives had been looking for alternatives to develop this port and it appears that China was not an option.

The Maldivian economy is facing major debt issues. According to some reports Maldives owes around $1.3 billion to China. What is interesting is that the Indian government has promised to extend an aid package of $1.4 billion to the island nation.

During Solih’s visit the two sides signed a number of agreements. According to the Joint Statement issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, they agreed to work together on a large number of issues ranging from visa arrangements to cultural relations, ecosystem improvements and working together in the field of information and communications technology (ICT).

They also discussed ways in which they can cooperate in developing human resources, tourism, and medical and legal collaboration.

India will also be playing an active role in training the Maldives Police Service and Maldives National Defense Force. Indian soft power was also at its full strength during this visit as the two sides reasserted the need to build stronger people-to-people contacts.

The Indian government is also very keen to help in the overall infrastructure development of Maldives and wants the Indian private sector to invest there.

However, it is difficult to ignore the Chinese presence in the South Asian region, which was quite apparent during this bilateral meeting. Modi said: “We will not allow our countries to be used for activities which can be harmful to each other’s interests.”

The two sides also discussed ways to improve maritime security and further strengthen the Indian Ocean region. The foreign minister of Maldives, Abdulla Shahid, has reiterated that his government would be “sensitive toward India’s security and strategic concerns.”

Under the Belt and Road Initiative, China has been extending loans and building ports throughout the Indian Ocean region, which has been a cause of concern for New Delhi.

The proactive role shown by the Indian government in exploiting the pro-Indian leadership in Maldives deserves praise.

In the last few years most of the countries in South Asia have been showing a very pro-Beijing stance. After looking at the developments during this bilateral meeting, one can argue that China’s relentless inroads in South Asia have forced India to wake up to the reality.

India was being pushed into a secondary position in its own geographical sphere of influence. However, it appears that New Delhi has realized that it has a great deal to offer to its neighbors and it can also play a very crucial role in the development of the region as a whole.

But the elephant in the room is whether India will be able and willing to deliver on its promises.

The major drawback of Indian regional diplomacy has been its slow pace of delivery when compared with the Chinese.

Only time will tell if India will be successful in gaining the trust of the new government in Maldives or whether its dillydallying will push Malé more toward Beijing. But one cannot deny that if New Delhi fails its neighbor this time, there may not be any redemption available.

Indian foreign policy has to get increasingly mature and adapt to the changing political realities and environment in South Asia.

Gunjan Singh

Gunjan Singh is a research associate at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), New Delhi.