Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (R) embraces Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during Solih's presidential inauguration in Male, November 17, 2018. Photo: Handout/PIB/AFP

Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar while attending a two-day Indian Ocean conference this week in the Maldivian capital, Malé, not only assured President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of India’s “fullest commitment” in the island country’s development, the two nations signed a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) on criminal matters with the objective to enhance effectiveness in investigation and prosecution of crime through cooperation. This is the first MLAT signed by Maldives.

On this occasion, President Solih underlined the need for strengthening the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and to forge intraregional cooperation in addressing pressing issues confronted by countries abutting the Indian Ocean such as climate change, proper implementation of maritime laws under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and combating illicit trafficking of humans and narcotics. Meanwhile, Jaishankar was also keen to argue for fast-tracking the process of re-admitting Maldives into the Commonwealth of Nations, which the country left in 2016 amid political turbulence.

It must be stressed that the two countries only moved ahead with the direction and objectives set out by the summit meetings between their prime ministers. The Indian government saw to it that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first state visit abroad after his re-election this year was to Maldives (from June 8 to 9), which underlined the significance of the small archipelagic South Asian country to India’s foreign policy in general and neighborhood policy in particular.

It is worth recalling that Modi had attended President Solih’s inauguration ceremony in Malé in November 2018, and Solih chose India as the destination of his first visit abroad in December after assuming office.

Modi’s visit to the island country was significant for a number of reasons. First, despite lows in India-Maldives relations and Malé tilting toward Beijing under the former president Abdulla Yameen, the Indian prime minister could not visit the country during his first term in office, pending his visit on the condition that the Maldivian president had to address the deteriorating domestic political milieu.

After the first Modi government came to power in 2014, touring the Indian Ocean Region was considered a pivotal part of India’s “neighborhood first” policy, which can be inferred from the fact that Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Seychelles in 34 years, and Sri Lanka after 28 years. However, the Indian government appeared to be a bystander to the unfolding political drama within Maldives and to its drifting toward Chinese influence during the Yameen government.

Even while India’s neighborhood-first policy suffered a setback and appeared to meander without proper direction during much of Modi’s first term, India was cautious to the call of intervention from the Maldivian leaders in the opposition camp, which demanded the ouster of the Yameen regime and the release of democratic leaders from jail. India was aware that the regime and its actions were not the results of a coup like what happened in 1988 when India launched a successful military mission in Maldives, exemplifying a commendable effort by New Delhi to dislodge an authoritarian regime in the neighborhood. In this context, Modi’s visit to the archipelago in June would have restored India’s as well as its neighboring states’ faith in New Delhi’s policy priority attached to its neighborhood.

Second, the visit was crucial in resetting bilateral ties between India and Maldives in substantive terms, whereas earlier visits by the leaders of the respective countries enhanced the symbolic aspect of relations. The visit was not only characterized by the signing of six significant agreements, there were substantive bilateral level talks which reaffirmed cooperation and placed the bilateral relationship on a firm footing.

Third, the agreements were significant in boosting India’s confidence in the key areas of defense and security and in insuring against Chinese sway in the Indian Ocean region. The “India-Maldives Joint Statement during the State Visit of Prime Minister to Maldives” read in part:

“The two leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean Region, and to strengthen coordination in enhancing maritime security in the region, through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information, and capacity building. The two leaders acknowledged the recent joint exercise Ekatha conducted in April 2019. Both sides agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation on issues of common concern including piracy, terrorism, organized crime, drugs and human trafficking. They agreed to set up a Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism, Countering Violent Extremism and De-radicalization.”

The preceding Maldivian leadership not only wanted India to remove its gifted helicopters and crew from the country, indicating the strategic dimension of Chinese activities there, China and Maldives announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo in the beginning of 2018. There were speculations that China would build a military port in Maldives as well. The recently concluded visit would ensure that while the Solih government may find it difficult to roll back all the Chinese projects; it would insist the activities be limited to commercial purposes alone and alleviate Indian concerns.

Yameen had pushed the island country into the Chinese orbit of influence by seeking Beijing’s financial assistance, candidly supporting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and favoring Chinese companies’ undertaking major infrastructure projects. He further signed a free-trade agreement with China toward the end of 2017 and disallowed Indian workers from entering the country, which kept India’s relations with Maldives wandering aimlessly.

Maldives’ imports from China increased to 18% compared with India’s 11% from January to June 2018, indicating the dwarfing of New Delhi’s influence in the country. India undertook course-correction measures, announcing an assistance package worth US$1.4 billion through a credit line and budgetary support once the new government under Solih came to power. This was significant in view of the island country’s indebtedness to China. China’s loans to Maldives were estimated to be around $3.4 billion, and to repay it Malé has to spend 15% of its budget from 2020 onward, as has been argued by former Maldivian president Mohammad Nasheed. Maldives has been seeking India’s financial assistance as one of the ways to address this burden on its economy, and helping Malé in financial terms is considered by New Delhi to be one of most effective ways of addressing the island country’s possible drift toward China.

In this context, the India-Maldives Joint Statement underlined:

“Both leaders welcomed the signing of the US$800 million Dollar Line of Credit Agreement in March 2019, for assisting the Maldives to achieve sustainable social and economic development. The leaders stressed the need to work towards expeditious implementation of people-centric and socio-economic projects including in areas of water and sanitation for many islands, Addu city urban development and support for SME Finance Corporation under the US$800 million Dollar Line of Credit Agreement. They also decided to work on other projects in the pipeline including in sectors such as port development, health, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and energy.”

As the joint statement suggested, India would assist the Maldivian government in two key areas, namely stemming the tide of growing Islamist radicalization and institutionalized corruption that gathered momentum during the Yameen regime. Indicating the forging of close strategic ties with India, Maldivian defense chief Abdullah Shamaal during his visit to the country not only sought to replicate the Indian model in improving the relations between its defense forces and the civilian leadership, he argued that India was set to play the key role of a “security guarantor” for peace and stability within the greater Indian Ocean Region.

Then, after Modi was re-elected, member countries of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) were invited by the Indian government to the prime minister’s swearing-in ceremony, which indicated the “Act East” thrust in New Delhi’s foreign policy. Maldives is not a member of that grouping, which includes the South Asian countries Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, and therefore choosing the island country for Modi’s first state visit suggests that the bilateral relationship between the two countries will move ahead in strategic terms independent of India’s eastward stride.

Further, the visits first by India’s prime minister and then by its external affairs minister to Maldives conform to the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine outlined by Modi in 2015, which aimed at keeping the Indian Ocean Region peaceful and secure.

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