The President of the Republic of Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was on a state visit to India during December 16-18, 2018. This was his first state visit abroad after taking the oath of the President of the island nation on November 17. The newly elected President’s visit to India marks a new line of engagement in strengthening the two countries’ bilateral relations, considering that the strategic convergence between the two had fallen under the shadow of a Chinese stronghold under former President Abdulla Yameen.
Amidst an ambiance of political turmoil and the strongman’s hand played by Yameen, Solih’s victory in the presidential elections in September resolved a number of existing complexities — the immediate being the hopes for the return of ex-President Mohamad Nasheed who was ousted and jailed in 2012 and again in 2015 and who had later escaped the country and remained in Sri Lanka in exile since 2016. Also, Yameen had defied court orders in releasing political prisoners including former President Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country for 30 years until 2008.
On the foreign policy front, the proximity between Yameen and Beijing had destabilized the geopolitical dynamics in the Indian Ocean region, especially with India. In recent years, the Chinese presence in the Maldives has kept New Delhi on a strategic alert. The Maldives forms a critical node in China’s multi-billion dollar grand strategy — the “Maritime Silk Road’ deployed under the broader framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, aiming to connect China with other continents by establishing a Chinese order on the major shipping lanes. This has left India wary of Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean region.
In December 2017, a on the establishment of a between the State Oceanic Administration of China and the Ministry of Environment of the Maldives was signed during a visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to the island nation. The planned is “located in the north of the Maldivian archipelago and separated by a waterway off the Indian state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast.” Clearly, it is keeping China on an advantageous point in its surveillance over activities in the Indian Ocean. In its initial response to India’s concerns, the Maldives had cited economic and environmental cooperation with China under the planned observation station and refuted any military presence of China. Meanwhile, clarification from the Maldives was far less convincing to New Delhi as Chinese intentions to strengthen its region have become clearer with its projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The Maldives did not host a Chinese embassy in the national capital until 2011. It was only in November 2011 that China opened an embassy in the national capital Malé. Soon after the embassy’s grand opening, China agreed to grant in to the Maldives for the development of housing and other infrastructure projects including airports and sea-ports. With a free hand given by Yameen to China, Beijing had managed to bring India’s strategic cooperation with the Maldives to a minimal level.
Considering these developments in the past seven years, the visit of the newly elected President to New Delhi boosts India’s equation with the Maldives. Taking the lead in congratulating president-elect Solih, New Delhi had welcomed the election results with open arms. The United States had also seen the results with immense optimism, considering its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. However, China was taken aback, and it was reflected in the delayed and cold which “We respect the choice made by the people in the Maldives and hope that the Maldives can maintain stability and development.” Beijing had clearly sensed the political transition in the Maldives to be to its disadvantage.
With an attempt to change the course of proximity from China to India, Solih walks a tight rope in achieving the “best” for his country, especially in light of Maldives’ debt to China which has reached close to USD 3 billion.
India, on the other hand, had been in search for a friendly space in the island nation. As part of India’s official “neighborhood first” foreign policy in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had toured all the South Asian countries except for the Maldives due to the unfavorable political developments. The first time that Modi traveled to the Maldives was when he attended the swearing-in ceremony of the President-elect on November 17, 2018. During discussions between the two leaders on the sidelines of the ceremony, a chain of including India’s security concerns in the Indian Ocean. In this context, the two leaders to “maintaining peace and security in the India Ocean and being mindful of each other’s concerns and aspirations.”
Further, India and Maldives signed during Solih’s visit to New Delhi, which included an Agreement on the Facilitation of Visa Arrangement, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cultural Cooperation, MoU for Establishing Cooperation to improve the Ecosystem for Agribusiness and a Joint Declaration of Intent on Cooperation in the field of Information and Communications Technology and Electronics. The Maldives has long sought the Agreement on Visa Facilitation which will allow many Maldivians who send their children to schools in India to be able to accompany them.
To obtain the support that Solih may require in future from India, he had announced his “India-first” policy during the Presidential election. Together with India’s “neighborhood first” policy, they demonstrate a willingness of the two countries to cooperate on a priority basis. Also, knowing the diplomatic complications that may emerge out of the “India-first” policy in dealing with Beijing, Solih had Modi on the “dire economic situation facing the country” during their meeting. He had also highlighted the “pressing need for increased housing and infrastructure development as well as for establishing water and sewerage systems in the outlying islands” which in the had been discussed with China during the rule of Yameen.
As per the promises made during his visit to the Maldives in November, Modi the “ up to US$ 1.4 billion in the form of budgetary support, currency swap and concessional lines of credit to fulfill the socio-economic development programs of the Maldives.” Also, as an island nation, Maldives faces the impacts of climate change. In this regard, the two countries agreed to combat the impacts of climate change and work towards strengthening the global response to climate change, through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.
More importantly, India of late has pushed towards greater regional cooperation in addressing the global challenge of terrorism. While Pakistan remains a critical country in hosting and sheltering terrorist groups and using them as a tool in asserting its foreign policy goals, especially with India, Solih’s “unwavering commitment and support for increased cooperation in combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations both within the region and elsewhere” sends a strong signal to both Pakistan and China, who remains Pakistan’s strategic ally.
The challenges before the newly elected President at the domestic and foreign policy levels have prefixed his tenure towards improving economic conditions amidst falling GDP and political deadlock. With an attempt to change the course of proximity from China to India, Solih walks a tight rope in achieving the “best” for his country, especially in light of Maldives’ debt to China which has reached close to USD 3 billion. However, the long-standing partnership with India in the past is self-evident of positive results. Hence, attempts to improve its relationship with India at present comes as a significant opportunity for New Delhi to prove its goodwill and commitment towards an important geo-strategic neighbor.