Continuity and challenges in the India-Maldives relations

Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s four-day visit to India has come at a time when India’s neighbourhood is in flux. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal is creating greater instability in a region that is already experiencing perpetual strategic hostilities by Pakistan and China against India.

Solih’s visit assumes importance since the Maldives is an important partner for India in the latter’s geopolitical competition against China in the Indian Ocean Region. India’s sustained diplomatic, economic and strategic engagements with Maldives and Solih’s favourable response to the same since his becoming president in 2018 have been crucial in India’s counterbalance strategy against China in South Asia.

Solih’s visit to India combines continuity along with a reset in the India-Maldives relations.

Since Solih became the president in 2018, India has accelerated its engagements with Maldives. Solih’s predecessor Abdulla Yameen, during his tenure from 2013 to 2018, pushed Maldives closer to China and away from India. In 2015, the constitution of Maldives was amended which allowed foreigners to own properties in the Maldives. In 2017, a free trade agreement was finalized between Maldives and China. According to former President Mohamed Nasheed, Chinese debt was $3.1 billion which included government-to-government loans and money lent to state enterprises and private entities. Other experts differ on this and estimate the amount of debt owed by Maldives to China to be around $1.1 to 1.4 billion, still a substantial amount considering Maldives annual GDP to be about $4.9 billion.

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s victory in the 2018 presidential elections turned Maldivian foreign policy orientation towards India. India proactively responded to this opportunity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the oath-taking ceremony of Solih in November 2018. For his part, Solih chose India as the country of his first foreign visit as president in December 2018. Under Solih’s presidency, Maldives also prioritized relations with India under the India First Policy. This policy has been complemented by India’s Neighbourhood First Policy.

Since 2018, India’s ties with Maldives have witnessed an upswing. Even as China vies to keep upper hand, India has been successful in making inroads in Maldives by way of economic assistance and infrastructure projects.

During his recent visit to India, Solih and Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Greater Male connectivity projects in Maldives. India has provided $100 million in grant and $400 million under line of credit. India has also provided $100 million line of credit for development projects in Maldives. Solih’s visit also saw the two countries entering into agreements in the areas of cyber security, disaster management and police infrastructure development.

India’s status as a favoured partner of Maldives stems from the fact that Indian economic assistance is not aimed at creating a debt trap, like China’s economic engagements. Further, Maldivian economy depends substantially on tourism. However, with the tourism suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Maldives would need assistance for economic recovery on liberal terms which is available from India.

While India has been consistent with its engagements with Maldives there are challenges to the bilateral relations.

While India has made significant inroads in Maldives, India Out campaign had been gaining ground in Maldives for about past year. Former President Abdulla Yameen led this campaign that was backed by China. Yameen, who was sentenced to five years of imprisonment and a $5 million fine for embezzling $1 million from state funds, was released from house arrest in 2021. The court also cleared him of the embezzlement charges citing insufficient evidence. These developments mark Yameen’s return to politics and the upcoming 2023 presidential elections could decide the fate of the India-Maldives relations should Yameen contest and win. In a bid to counter the anti-India sentiments, Solih signed a decree in April this year stating India Out campaign as a threat to national security and allowing security agencies to take action against opposition parties spearheading this campaign.

Another area of concern is the radicalization in Maldives. Maldives’ transition to democracy in 2008 also led to growing undercurrents of radicalization. Opposition parties blamed the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which won the 2008 elections, of ruining the sacred Islamic values. Further the of terror organization ISIS in the Middle East has contributed to radicalization in Maldives. The attack on former President Mohamed Nasheed has been linked to growing radical tendencies in Maldives. Maldives is the country with highest per capita foreign fighters in the world joining the ISIS. In June this year, a violent mob attacked an event organized by the Indian High Commission in Maldives to celebrate International Day of Yoga. This attack is believed to have carried out by the members of Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM). Ilmuveringe Gulhun, an Islamic radical organization had called for stopping the celebrations of the International Day of Yoga as it goes against Islamic principles.

Maldives is an important country in the Indian Ocean Region for India. India’s deep diplomatic, economic and strategic engagements with Maldives seek to address traditional as well as non-traditional security threats. It is pertinent for India to keep up with the engagements and at the same time make an effort to connect with the Maldivian people for greater acceptability. Such measures could lead to India sustaining a geopolitical advantage in Maldives.