16th August 2021
India has shared cordial bilateral ties with the Maldives but not all days have been sunny. India’s strategically located South Asian neighbour has received primacy in a multitude of its policies like the ‘Neighbourhood First’ and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). Even the Maldives has reciprocated this bonhomie with the likes of its ‘India First’ policy. After friction in bilateral ties during the regime of former President Abdulla Yameen, hopes were high that the two maritime neighbours would overcome their differences and take cooperation to unprecedented levels. However, recent developments concerning growing anti-India sentiments in the Maldives have set the alarm bell in New Delhi. Though the prospects of bilateral cooperation remain high, will India be able to abate the resurfacing old challenges with the optimism of new opportunities?
Resurfacing of Old Challenges
The pro-China regime of Abdulla Yameen had led to some challenges for India and a few of them have resurfaced lately. The ‘India Out’ campaign is one primary concern for New Delhi. This campaign is actively witnessing protests against India’s “military presence” in the Maldives. Though the protestors in the forefront of the campaign have claimed it to be peaceful and “an issue based movement”, violent threats have made their way into the campaign. There have been protests outside the Indian High Commission in Male and more recently, even threats to bomb the same have surfaced in a few online posts. After the Indian High Commissioner appealed to the Maldivian government, the latter issued an official statement asking the local media outlets to curb the spread of stories that would compromise the reputation and security of the Indian diplomats. The situation is such that past events like the breakout of a huge fire in the State Bank of India’s Maldives office are being suspected of being linked to the rising anti-India propaganda.
One of the issues at the core of this campaign against “India’s military presence” is the issue of two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters that were given to the Maldives by India in 2010 and 2015. Though these have been used for non-military operations like search, rescue, weather surveillance etc., the protestors perceive it as India’s attempts at creating a military presence in the Maldives. Moreover, when Indian forces were sent to train the operators of these helicopters (Maldives National Defence Force), similar perceptions were furthered. These apprehensions saw a peak during President Yameen’s tenure. Despite current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s government’s warm outlook on ties with India, these anti-India sentiments from the past have resurfaced.
The accusations of India increasing its military footprint in the Maldives are not very well substantiated. It is argued that though greater defense cooperation with the latter would help India counter China’s influence in South Asia, neither does it have any military base nor has it stationed a huge force there. Nonetheless, such anti-India sentiments must be timely pacified. Or else they could, as even expressed by the Indian High Commission in Maldives, harm the “time-tested and mutually beneficial bilateral relations” between the two maritime neighbours.
New Opportunities for Cooperation
The recently conducted Colombo Security Conclave generated a fresh wave of optimism about a myriad of new opportunities for regional cooperation. The decision to establish the Colombo Security Conclave had been agreed upon by India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in November 2020. This conclave appears to be an important platform for India to reach a common ground on maritime and security threat matters with its fellow Indian Ocean neighbours and boost cooperation in the same. The first Deputy NSA (National Security Advisor) level meeting of the conclave resulted in the identification of four pillars of cooperation- ‘Maritime Safety and Security’, ‘Terrorism and Radicalization’, ‘Trafficking and Organised Crime’ and ‘Cyber Security’. The success of the Colombo Security Conclave can go a long way in enhancing regional cooperation. From the point of view of India-Maldives relations too, this forum is a golden opportunity for both sides to deepen their engagement in maritime and other security related matters via joint exercises, regular interactions, capacity building and training activities.
The Maldives’ Foreign Minister, Abdulla Shahid’s election as the new President of the United Nations General Assembly is an opportunity for India to enhance cooperation in “strengthening multilateralism” and working for its related reforms. Not only had India given complete diplomatic support to Shahid’s candidacy, it had also been the first nation to endorse it. After his election to the post, Shahid chose India as the destination of his first foreign visit. During the visit, India emphasised the need to reform the multilateral system, including the organs of the UN, to make it more reflective of the “current realities of the world and the aspirations of a vast majority of the world’s population.” Similar arguments have been at the heart of India’s call for UNSC (UN Security Council) reforms, especially for the expansion of the permanent membership of the Council. It is worth noting that in the past, the Maldives has openly endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UNSC. Furthermore, with India as a current non-permanent member of the UNSC, there lies an opportunity to create new synergies with the Maldives in pursuit of its stated objective- N.O.R.M.S. (New Orientation for a Reformed Multilateral System).
The recent positive developments, significantly boosted by India’s Covid assistance to the Maldives (vaccines and relief package), signal an environment conducive for holistic bilateral cooperation. Not only have past agreements picked up momentum, new possibilities also seem on their way. India is presently engaged in 45 infrastructure development projects across the Maldives, compared to only one by China. These projects include a diverse range from water and sanitation to airport extension and connectivity.
The significance of India’s investments in the Maldives can be gauged by one of the key upcoming projects- the Sifvaru-Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF) Harbour Project. Under this project, India will assist the Maldives in maintaining a Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbour. It is expected to be key in not only countering China in the Indian Ocean but also in strengthening cooperation in maritime security and regional HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) efforts.
Though times are favourable for India to solidify its relationship with the Maldives, the irritants cannot be taken lightly. Scepticism about India’s defence cooperation initiatives can stall progress on key projects that are of strategic importance to New Delhi. Moreover, if not addressed properly, the anti-India sentiments can hamper bilateral cooperation in other areas as well.
The Maldivian government has been active in assuring its people about the significance of India’s support and about the fact that their sovereignty will not be compromised. India too must be looking towards not letting its bilateral relations with the Maldives waver from their base of mutual trust and respect. It remains to be seen how well New Delhi is able to play its part in pacifying the challenging state of affairs in the Maldives.
*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies
Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author