India-Maldives Relationship – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

The External Affairs Minister of India recently visited Maldives. In a bid to strengthen the India-Maldives Relationship, the two countries signed pacts on several development projects. The EAM’s visit comes at a crucial time. Presidential elections are set to be held in Maldives in September 2023. The elections are important for India as well, because the trajectory of India-Maldives relationship will depend on the outcome of the elections. Domestic politics of Maldives have come about to be the most vital aspect of the India-Maldives Relationship. The increasing Chinese influence in Maldive’s domestic politics poses a new challenge to Indian diplomacy.

What is the significance of Maldives to India?

Geographical Location: Maldives is geographically located in a position that makes it resemble a ‘toll gate’ between the chokepoints of the western Indian Ocean (Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz), and the eastern Indian Ocean (Strait of Malacca).

Economic Significance: It is strategically located at the crossroads of several important trade routes that run through the Indian Ocean. Through this region passes more than 97% of India’s total international trade by volume and 75% by value.

Strategic Significance: The significance of the Maldives has steadily increased since China’s naval expansion into the Indian Ocean. Maldives is now at the centre of geopolitical affairs on a global scale. The Republic of Maldives is a party to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC).

Security: Under the Presidency of Abdullah Yameen, there was a rapid increase in radicalization. It was frequently said that the archipelago was responsible for one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria in terms of the number of fighters per capita. Yameen’s Government (2013-18) also had a very prominent pro-China tilt which was detrimental to India’s interests in Maldives and the Indian Ocean Region.

Indian Diaspora: There is a sizeable population of people descended from India living in Maldives. There are numerous Indians employed in the Maldives’ education and medical care systems, as well as in the tourism and hospitality sector.

Location of Maldives India-Maldives Relationship UPSC

Source: Asia Times. Strategic Location of Maldives.

How has the India-Maldives Relationship evolved?

India and Maldives have close cultural relationship since ancient times. The name Maldives is believed to be of Sanskrit origin (Mala (garland) + Dweep (Island)). There is reference of Maldives in ancient texts like Mahavamsa. The islands are believed to have been inhabited as early as 5th century BC by settlers from Sri Lanka and Southern India. The origins of Dhivehi (the Maldivian language) traces back to Sanskrit and Pali, which are also the roots of many southern Indian languages. There were close trade relationships between India and Maldives during ancient and medieval times.

After Maldives gained independence from British rule in 1966, both countries moved quickly to establish diplomatic relations. India was one of the earliest countries to acknowledge Maldives’ status as an independent nation. Since then, India and the Maldives have developed close military, economic, and cultural relationship.

India’s relationship with the Maldives has largely remained free of any politically contentious issues. The one-time claim to Minicoy Island by Maldives was resolved by the Maritime Boundary Treaty of 1976 between the two countries, whereby Maldives has recognized Minicoy as an integral part of India.

India-Maldives Relationship Maritime Boundary Agreement 1976 UPSC

Source: Asian Times

India and Maldives signed comprehensive trade agreement in 1981.

In 1988, there was an attempt to overthrow the Government of Maldives. The coup attempt was made by local Maldivians assisted by mercenaries from a Tamil secessionist group from Sri Lanka, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam. The Indian Armed Forces moved swiftly, launched Operation Cactus. The swift action by the Indian Forces coupled with accurate intelligence prevented the coup from succeeding.

India was the first to assist Maldives after the 2004 Tsunami as well as the water crisis in Malé in December 2014. India’s timely interventions to support Maldives at the time of crises has laid the foundation of a strong India-Maldives Relationship. There has been a notable expansion in the level of cooperation between India and Maldives since the 1990s. In Malé, the capital of the Maldives, India built the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. Additionally, India increased the number of scholarships available to Maldivian students and expanded both telecommunications and air links.

During the COVID-19 crisis, India offered Maldives assistance in the form of vaccines, financial, material, and logistical support etc.

What are the areas of cooperation in India-Maldives Relationship?

Both India’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and the Maldives’ policy of ‘India First’ appear to be perfectly coordinated with one another.

Security Cooperation: Maldives relies heavily on trilateral maritime security cooperation with India and Sri Lanka. The purpose of such collaboration is to counter common maritime security threats and challenges such as illicit trafficking, piracy, and illegal and unregulated (or unreported) fishing. India and Maldives have agreed on energizing cooperation in maritime security, maritime domain awareness, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) through the implementation of underway projects and capacity building initiatives.

Military Cooperation: (a) India has donated Landing Assault Craft and 24 Utility Vehicles to Maldives in order to bolster maritime security; (b) A grant assistance of US$ 50 million Line of Credit facility has also been approved for carrying multiple defense projects; (c) To establish new horizons in the defence ecosystem, Maldives hosted the 5th Meeting of Colombo Security Conclave in Male’ in March 2022 which witnessed membership expansion as well as addition of a new pillar (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, HADR); (d) A comprehensive Action Plan for Defence was signed in April 2016 to consolidate defence partnership. India also provides the largest number of training opportunities for Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), meeting around 70% of their defence training requirements.

Economic Cooperation: (a) India and the Maldives have also signed multiple bilateral agreements in recent years, including US$ 500 million in grants and financing to support maritime connectivity, a US$ 800-million line of credit from the Export-Import Bank of India, and an agreement on exchanging information on the movement of commercial maritime vessels; (b) From 4th in 2018, India has become Maldives’ 2nd largest trading partner; (c) In 2021, there was a rise of 31% in bilateral trade compared to the 2020; (d) The Maldives’ economy is almost entirely dependent on the tourism sector. Maldives is an important tourist destination for many Indians.

Infrastructure Cooperation: (a) India is the partner for the ambitious Greater Male Connectivity Project. This is one the largest project infrastructure project in Maldives. The project aims to connect Male to Villingili, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi islands through a series of bridges, causeways and roads. The project is crucial for the proposed Gulhifalhu Port, and will be a major catalyst for the Maldivian economy in the future through jobs and economic activity; (b) Buyers Credit Agreement has been signed for design and construction of 61 police infrastructures across Maldives. This will contribute to improved access to policing and to ensure the safety and security of the communities in the islands; (c) Indian-Maldives are carrying strategic harbour projects viz  Uthuru Thila Falhu. The island has been selected for the development of a dockyard facility and a harbor for the coast guard of the Maldives National Defence Force; (d) India is also undertaking Airport Redevelopment Project at the Hanimaadhoo International Airport.

Humanitarian Assistance: (a) In 2019, an MoU for grant assistance for High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) was signed. A number of socio-economic development projects are planned to be implemented throughout the country under this funding; (b) India provided 100,000 Covishield vaccines to Maldives in January 2021, during the peak of the pandemic; (c) India  has handed over the two sea ambulances to the Ministry of Defence of Maldives; (d) The main government-affiliated hospital in the Maldives, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in the capital, was built with aid from the Government of India; (e) India provided assistance to Maldives during recovery efforts after the 2004 Tsunami. India also helped address the shortage of drinking water in 2014; (f) Water and Sanitation in 34 Islands: The project seeks to improve water supply and sewerage facilities in 34 identified islands by installing proper water supply distribution network, ensuring protection of ground water aquifer and sustainable water source management. The project was awarded as 6 packages to 4 Indian contractors after a tendering process. Work has commenced on all islands.

Education and Technology Cooperation: (a) The National Knowledge Network is a multi-gigabit national network for research and education. It has recently established connections with the academics and research institutions of the Maldives. The National Informatics Centre is in charge of its operation (NIC); (b) Both countries have signed the Peering Agreement, which will now help over 1,500 Indian institutes and a host of universities and centres of learning from Singapore, Europe and the United Stated are now connected to Maldives; (c) India has helped Maldives in establishing the National College for Policing and Law Enforcement (NCPLE) at Addu City which was inaugurated in March 2022; (d) India has support for the development of a sports complex in Gahdhoo. Cochin University of Science and Technology and the Maldives National University are collaborating in the academic field; (e) India will send 10,000 school books to be distributed in 260 schools in Maldives.

What are the challenges in the India-Maldives Relationship?

Political: (a) While the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has a very prominent pro-Indian approach, the political opposition under former President Abdulla Yameen is seen as anti-India. Abdulla Yameen had allotted lot of development projects to China during his tenure; (b) Abdulla Yameen also led the ‘India Out‘ Campaign. He is opposed to India’s military presence in Maldives.

Radicalisation: A large number of Maldive citizens had joined violent extremist organisations such as the Islamic State (IS). There has been a steady rise in recruits joining jihadi groups in Pakistan over the last decade. There is now a greater risk that terrorist organisations based in Pakistan will use the Maldives as a staging ground for attacks on India and Indian assets.

Chinese Influence: China has enhanced its influence in Maldives (and in Indian Ocean). Maldives is an essential ‘pearl’ in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ initiative in South Asia.

What can be done to enhance India-Maldives Relationship?

First, India should increase development assistance to Maldives. India should target projects that have larger impact on general population of Maldives. This will enhance India’s goodwill among the people of Maldives.

Second, India should also engage with political opposition of Maldives. The concerns of the opposition can be addressed through suitable discussions. India should also convey that the projects being undertaken are for the general good of the people of Maldives e.g., the US$ 136.6-million development of the airport at Hanimadhoo includes the development of a 2.46-km runway that can accommodate large aircraft, and a terminal with an annual capacity for 1.3 million passengers. This will improve tourist inflow, which is the mainstay of economy of Maldives.

Third, It should be ensured that India is not seen as interfering in the internal politics of Maldives including Presidential elections. Political interference by India will be exploited by opponents to India’s detriment.

Fourth, As part of India’s Neighbourhood First policy, the exemplary bilateral cooperation between India and Maldives could serve as a useful template for developing our ties with other This would be in keeping with India’s commitment to putting its neighbours first. The Maldives have always benefited from India’s assistance and development.

Conclusion

Maldives is vital to India’s interests due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. India-Maldives Relationship has a strong foundation based on India’s historic assistance to Maldives during multiple crises. However, the relationship has seen new challenges in recent times, especially since China’s rising influence in the Indian Ocean Region. India must give a rigorous push to ties with Maldives while being mindful of Maldives’ sensitivities.

Syllabus: GS II, India and its neighbourhood relations.

Source: Indian Express, Indian Express, The Times of India, MEA, MEA, ORFCarnegie Endowment

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