India’s Neighbourhood First Policy towards Maldives – Is it late to Look South?

 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan
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The change in course in India’s Diplomatic relations in the Indian Ocean Region has been a major agenda of India’s Neighbourhood ‘First’ Policy.  The Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, since his appointment in November, visited India in December last year [[i]] and is keenly vigilant in their India First Policy.  The recent visit of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Male [[ii]], following an invitation, would assist to strengthen the bilateral relation with the island neighbour which is geopolitically strategic for India in the current context. The meeting was held between Indian Foreign Affairs Minister and her Maldivian counterpart Abdulla Shahid to collaborate in the fields of Defence, developmental goals, health and capacity building[[iii]].

New Delhi’s Neighbourhood First Policy and Male’s India First Policy

In the recent times, apart from its policy of acting east or thinking west, India has been refocusing on its immediate neighbours especially towards the south. The Island nations in the south, Sri Lanka and Maldives, are equally strategic along with the other landlocked neighbours in the Indian Subcontinent. On the other hand, India being a littoral state has traditionally been close with Maldives [[iv]]. The geopolitical scenarios in the Indian Ocean Region are dynamic in this twenty first century and it is imperative for India to keep its policy healthy to override maritime security and related challenges. Being the only ocean named after a country, India is privileged and responsible to keep the waters safe along with the other Island nations. India’s connotation with Maldives dates back to centuries. Interestingly the induction of Minicoy, which was part of the Sultanate of Maldives Islands, was surrendered to East India Company in 1790 and later after Indian Independence in 1947 it automatically got included to the Union Territory of Lakshadweep[[v]] in India. However, the historical connect adds to the relationship and it is understood that Maldives is significant to India’s Neighbourhood ‘First Policy’ amidst growing presence of China[[vi]] in the region. India has to focus on the socio-economic development cooperation vis-a-vis assisting in tackling the non-traditional security threats and challenges that is connected with Island nation. The Government of India had been very supportive and verbal on the democratic win[[vii]] of President Solih in September last year, which was observed as a transformational triumph of democratic forces in Maldives. In December 2018, India provided financial support of 1.4 billion dollars in the form of budgetary support, currency swap and concessional lines of credit [[viii]]. The global impact of climate change has also affected Maldives as coral reefs are threatened by rising levels of sea and warmer acidic ocean[[ix]].

India has been a reliable partner for the Island Nation traditionally. The Maldivian India ‘First’ Policy is significant as it has a touch of a renewed reflective dynamism in its policies towards India. The political power drifts in the Island has seen ups and downs for an India First Policy in the last decade or so. India has been a priority for Maldives especially in the development areas. The Proximity to India in distance is helpful in the transit and in securing the waterways. Interestingly, the Yameen government was not as close to India as that of Former President Nasheed and the current government led by Solih [[x]]. The India First Policy can be assessed with the visit of President Solih to India in December 2018, just a month after commencing his office, and later the invitation to Indian external affairs ministry to visit Male in March this year. It is commendable that the Maldivian government respects and sensitive to India’s security and strategic concerns [[xi]].

Beyond Borders

The relationship between the two south asian countries is more socio-economic in nature. India, being an emerging south asian economic giant, has been assisting Maldives in economic and developmental sectors including military domain for decades. It is imperative that India is deeply concerned on maritime issues in the Indian Ocean along with the influence of Chinese assistance to Maldives [[xii]] during Yameen’s rule. However, the change of government in the latter quarter of 2018 has paved way to a potential game changer in Indian Ocean geo politics. The government headed by President Ibrahim Solih has solidified its stance with India First Policy over China and his visit to India in December last year has put their policy intact.

The foreign ministerial level meeting in March this year between India and the Island nation witnessed Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) signed on – a) Exemption from Visa Requirements of Diplomatic and Official Passports; b) Indian grant assistance for Implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects through Local Bodies; c) Collaboration in the Field of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, according to Ministry of External Affairs, India [[xiii]]. Along with this Indian Foreign Minister had dedicated the renovation of Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital [[xiv]] -Maldives first and largest hospital- to the people of the Island Nation. The hospital has been receiving India’s assistance since 1996[[xv]]. However, Government of India extended support for further development in the health sector prioritising human security by providing advanced equipment and capacity building programs[[xvi]] as well.

In fact, the role of the Indian Diaspora is significant as well as potential economic opportunity in tourism is observed.  Maldives is also a cricket playing nation [[xvii]] under International Cricket Council. The Maldives Government has requested India to construct a cricket stadium [[xviii]] at Male. However, it is encouraging that the Maldives Government has decided to provide space in Hulhumalé for Indian Embassy.

Look South to Act South

Traditionally India has been a significant player in socio-economic developments in Maldives. It is time that India takes this opportunity to convert the ‘First’ Policy of both nations to a requirement that is inevitable. Strategically, the positioning of Maldives gives an advantage to keep a check on other players in the Indian Ocean along with it strengthening of defence relations with the Island nation is an added advantage. India has to regain thrust and belief on the people of Maldives to increase its role in the security domain. However, the two helicopters of Indian Armed forces which were gifted would soon be back in the Island nation after it was breached in June last year by the Yameen government. Perhaps this is the right time for India to execute its policies and to Counter the Chinese role in the island nation as this would mean a trickle down to Chinese hopes of connecting the Belt Road Initiative through Maldives as it has a base at Djibouti and at Hambantota in Sri Lanka[[xix]]. Perhaps the question left behind is whether relations with Maldives would assist India in restricting Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region in the near future.

 

References

[[i]]  MEA. “Joint Statement on the occasion of State Visit of the President of the Republic of Maldives to India (December 17, 2018)”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.  17 December 2018. Retrieved on 26 March 2019:
[[ii]]  MEA. “Joint Statement on the Official Visit of Minister of External Affairs of India to Maldives”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. 18 March 2019. Retrieved on 26 March 2019: 
[[iii]]   PTI. “ Sushma Swaraj meets top Maldives leadership, discusses measures to strengthen ties in the fields of defence and health”. First Post. 18 March 2019. Retrieved on 26 March 2019: https://www.firstpost.com/india/sushma-swaraj-meets-top-maldives-leadership-discusses-measures-to-strengthen-ties-in-fields-of-defence-and-health-6282081.html
[[iv]]  TNN. “India nudges Maldives, Lanka as China chokehold tightens”. The Economic Times. 13 July 2018. Retrieved on 29 March 2019: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-nudges-maldives-lanka-as-china-chokehold-tightens/articleshow/62080600.cms?from=mdr
[[v]]  “History-Minicoy”. The Minicoy Island Website. 29 March 2019. Retrieved on 29 March 2019: http://www.maldivesroyalfamily.com/minicoy_history.shtml
[[vi]] “Cautiously observing' Chinese presence in IOR: Indian Navy” . The Economic Times. 3 December 2018. Retrieved on 29 March 2019: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/cautiously-observing-chinese-presence-in-ior-indian-navy/articleshow/66923043.cms?from=mdr
[[vii]]  MEA. “Press Release on Presidential Elections in Maldives”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. 24 September 2018. Retrieved on 23 April 2019: https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/30424/Press_Release_on_Presidential_Elections_in_Maldives
[[viii]]  MEA. “Joint Statement on the occasion of State Visit of the President of the Republic of Maldives to India (December 17, 2018)”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of  India.  17 December 2018.
[[ix]]  East, Holly. “Maldives: climate change could actually help coral islands rise again – but they’re still at risk”. The Conversation. 13 November 2018. Retrieved on  29 March 2019: https://theconversation.com/maldives-climate-change-could-actually-help-coral-islands-rise-again-but-theyre-still-at-risk-106586
[[x]] Paraschar, Sachin. “Yameen loses, new govt to audit infra projects in likely setback for China”.The Times of India. 24 September 2018. Retrieved on  28 March 2019: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/yameen-loses-new-govt-to-audit-infra-projects-in-likely-setback-to-china/articleshow/65939680.cms
[[xi]]  MEA. “Joint Statement on the Official Visit of Minister of External Affairs of India to Maldives”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. 18 March 2019.
[[xii]] TNN. “India nudges Maldives, Lanka as China chokehold tightens”. The Economic Times. 13 July 2018.
[[xiii]] MEA. “Joint Statement on the Official Visit of Minister of External Affairs of India to Maldives”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. 18 March 2019.
[[xiv]] ibid
[[xv]]  “About us” . Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Male, Maldives. 1996. Retrieved on 28 March 2019: https://igmh.gov.mv/about-us/
[[xvi]] MEA. “Joint Statement on the Official Visit of Minister of External Affairs of India to Maldives”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. 18 March 2019.
[[xvii]]   Cricket Board of Maldives- Associate Member”. International Cricket Council. 1998. Retrieved on 29 March 2019: https://www.icc-cricket.com/about/members/asia/associate/117
[[xviii]]  PTI. “India to build cricket stadium in Maldives in effort to strengthen bilateral relations”. First Post. 18 March 2019. Retrieved on 29 March 2019: https://www.firstpost.com/firstcricket/sports-news/india-to-build-cricket-stadium-in-maldives-in-effort-to-strengthen-bilateral-relations-6282871.html
[[xix]] PTI. “China opposes Indian military intervention in Maldives”. The Economic Times.  7 Feb  2018. Retrieved on 29 March 2019: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/china-opposes-indian-military-intervention-in-maldives/articleshow/62819231.cms?from=mdr