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India – Maldives Ties

Context:

The swift deterioration of relations between India and the Maldives, occurring just a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with the newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu, is cause for concern. The catalyst for this decline emerged from tweets by three Maldivian Ministers who criticized Mr. Modi for promoting the Lakshadweep islands during his recent visit, seemingly at the expense of the Maldives, and for his close ties with Israel.

Relevance:

GS-2-

  • Bilateral Groupings and Agreements
  • Regional Groupings
  • Effect of Policies and Politics of Countries on India’s Interests
  • Indian Diaspora

Mains Question:

The historical and geographical ties between India and the Maldives have been significant, but recent developments following the establishment of a new government in the Maldives have sparked concerns. Evaluating the strategic significance of the Maldives for India, propose a forward-looking strategy to strengthen and enhance cooperation between India and the Maldives. (15 Marks, 250 Words).

Recent Developments:

The Ministers also made derogatory remarks about Indians. While the tweets have been deleted and the Ministers suspended, the Maldivian government has distanced itself from the incident, but the damage has already been done.

Ambassadors from both countries were summoned. Upset Indians on social media are advocating for an economic “boycott” of the Maldives, especially since Indian tourists constitute a significant portion of arrivals post-COVID-19.

An Overview of the Relation Between India and Maldives:

Security Partnership:

  • Collaboration in defense encompasses Joint Exercises such as “Ekuverin,” “Dosti,” “Ekatha,” and “Operation Shield” (commenced in 2021).
  • India plays a crucial role in meeting approximately 70% of the Maldivian National Defence Force’s (MNDF) defense training needs.
  • Additionally, India and the Maldives have signed a contract for the Addu reclamation and shore protection project, including the construction of a drug detoxification and rehabilitation center in Addu, supported by India.
  • This center is part of India’s 20 high-impact community development projects covering healthcare, education, fisheries, tourism, sports, and culture.

Economic Cooperation:

  • India supports the Maldivian economy, primarily driven by tourism. Afcons, an Indian company, signed a contract for the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP) in August 2021, the largest infrastructure project in the Maldives. In 2021, India became the third-largest trade partner for the Maldives.
  • The RBI and Maldives Monetary Authority signed a Bilateral USD Currency Swap Agreement in July 2019. However, the India-Maldives relationship faced challenges with the Maldives’ Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) with China in 2017.

Infrastructure Projects:

  • Under an Indian credit line, the Hanimaadhoo International Airport Development project is adding a new terminal to accommodate 1.3 million passengers annually.
  • The National College for Policing and Law Enforcement (NCPLE), inaugurated in 2022, is India’s largest grant project in the Maldives.

Greater Male Connectivity Project:

This project involves a 6.74 km-long bridge and causeway link between Male and nearby islands, funded by a USD 100 million grant and a USD 400 million Line of Credit (LOC) from India. It represents the most significant infrastructure undertaking in the Maldives.

Different Operations in Maldives:

Historically, India has engaged in operations to assist Maldives, including Operation Cactus in 1988, Operation Neer in 2014 addressing a drinking water crisis, and Operation Sanjeevani in response to COVID-19.

The Strained Relationship Between India and Maldives:

Current Government’s Relation with India:

  • Despite the immediate fallout, the underlying reasons for the strained relationship go beyond the tweets and could have a broader impact on India-Maldives relations and the regional dynamics, stemming from the change in government in Male.
  • President Muizzu ascended to power through the PPM’s “India Out” campaign. Despite India’s disappointment with the victory of ‘anti-Indian forces,’ the Indian government sent a Minister to Muizzu’s swearing-in, and there was a Modi-Muizzu meeting at the COP28.
  • However, Muizzu’s choice of Turkey as his first bilateral destination and his current visit to China mark a departure from the tradition of making India the first priority. Even President Yameen, who initiated the “India Out” movement and strengthened ties with Beijing, visited Delhi first in 2014.
  • Muizzu continues to press India on the withdrawal of its military personnel, despite India’s clarifications regarding their role.

Chinese Infrastructure Investments:

Maldives has received substantial Chinese infrastructure investments as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including ports, airports, bridges, and critical infrastructure under the “String of Pearls” initiative.

Shift in Alliances:

China’s influence in Maldives, marked by significant investments, has led to a departure from its traditional alignment with India, raising concerns in India about China’s expanding presence in the region.

India’s Concerns:

India is apprehensive about China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean, considering the development of Chinese-controlled ports and military facilities in countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Maldives as potential challenges to regional security.

Way Forward:

  • Amidst the calls for boycotts and the surge in hypernationalistic rhetoric, both Delhi and Male should step back and reevaluate their responses.
  • Mr. Muizzu cannot afford to alienate India, given its geographical proximity, economic strength, and historical role as a significant security provider in the Indian Ocean—a role the Maldives has traditionally depended on.
  • Similarly, India should recognize the futility of exerting pressure on a much smaller neighbor, regardless of the provocation’s severity.

Conclusion:

The positive developments in the relationship between the two governments over the past few years underscore the benefits of a stronger partnership: India’s investments in infrastructure and development projects in the islands, a robust strategic alliance, support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and collaboration on the international stage. It is crucial for India to ensure that domestic political changes in neighboring countries do not alter the fundamental structure of bilateral ties or disrupt regional stability.


February 2024
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