With the support of the United Arab Emirates, the Maldives not only prevented Pakistan from targeting India as Islamophobic during the OIC meeting, but also defended India’s record as a democratic, multicultural society, writes Shubha Singh for South Asia Monitor
India and the Maldives have been working in close cooperation, especially during the coronavirus crisis that hit the tiny island nation much before it had reached other larger and more densely populated countries in the region. The first COVID-19 positive case was diagnosed on March 7. India was the first country to respond to the crisis in the Maldives. Within a week, India had delivered 5.5 tonnes of medicines and also sent a Rapid Response Team of medical personnel and technicians to set up testing centres.
In early February, India evacuated Maldivian students from Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic in China. Import- dependent Maldives was concerned at the possible disruption of food and essential supplies when India banned export of many essential goods during its 21-day lockdown. But the Indian government took care to reassure Male that India would continue to maintain essential supplies and sent a consignment of medicines to Male. New Delhi followed it up by sending a shipload of food provisions leading to Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to say “India has been a true friend to the Maldives during the COVID-19 crisis.”
At a recent virtual meet of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Maldives gave another instance of the growing understanding between the two countries when the Maldivian representative refuted allegations against India. With the support of the United Arab Emirates, the Maldives not only prevented Pakistan from targeting India as Islamophobic during the OIC meeting, but also defended India’s record as a democratic, multicultural society.
India has been the first responder for Maldives on earlier occasions as well. Though the Maldives received assistance from several other countries, including China, India has been the early responder in times of crisis. Indian naval ships were the first to reach Male within hours of the tsunami in December 2004. India delivered a week’s supply of drinking water in 2014 within hours after the main desalination plant in Male was destroyed in a fire.
Relations with Maldives have been on an upswing after going through a bad patch during the term of the previous government led by former President Abdulla Yameen. The Yameen government had taken a distinctly pro-China stance when it came under criticism during a time of political instability in the country. Relations got strained to the extent that the Yameen government had even asked for the recall of Indian helicopters based in the Maldives. The election of a new government under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih restored the balance in Maldivian foreign policy.
Both sides made efforts to get the relationship back on track. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the inauguration of the Solih government in November 2018. Solih visited New Delhi on his first foreign tour in December 2018 when India offered a credit line and budgetary support worth $ 1.4 billion. In June 2019, Modi chose Maldives for his first foreign visit in his second term. These visits were followed by a regular exchange of ministerial and official visits.
During the election campaign, the opposition had strongly criticised large Chinese projects in Maldives. Newly-elected Maldives Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed said that the free trade agreement signed with China in 2017 would be repealed. But, others have been more circumspect. Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid said that the agreement, which had not been ratified by Parliament, would be reviewed. Agreements entered into by a previous government are not easily repudiated by the new government as Sri Lanka had discovered earlier. The new Sri Lankan government had to give the Hambantota port to China on a long lease despite its earlier intention to scrap it.
Maldives has strategic significance for China as it is located next to the main shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, close to the route through which China’s oil imports pass. China’s involvement in Maldives would continue because of its large projects in the country.
Maldives was among the first countries to sign up with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing considers Maldives a key investment point on its maritime routes. But the large infrastructure projects initiated during the Yameen regime left Maldives with a Chinese debt of about US 1.4 billion.
Maldives' economy has been hit hard by the pandemic as it is heavily dependent on tourism; almost 60 percent of its foreign exchange earnings are sourced from tourism. Once a favourite high-end honeymoon destination for European tourists, the number of Chinese tourists has been increasing for the past few years. China has become the major source of visitors to Maldives. About 300,000 Chinese tourists visited the Maldives in 2019.
Maldives is likely to be careful in maintaining a balance in its foreign policy, reaching out for a wider range of friendly ties. China’s deep pockets and its ability to fund large infrastructure projects will keep it engaged in the region. India’s ties with Maldives should continue to grow as close neighbours who are friends in need and deed.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and foreign policy analyst. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)