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India-Maldives ties set for consolidation, but China remains elephant in the room

Although the Solih visit went off very well, concerns remained over domestic politics in the Maldives.

Anand Kumar Aug 12, 2022
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Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih visit to India (Photo: PIB)

The India-Maldives bilateral relationship that has been on upswing after President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to power was further strengthened by his latest visit to India. This was the third visit of President Solih to India since 2018 where an attempt was made to boost connectivity both within the Maldives and between India and the Maldives. 

Besides, India also presented itself as an important development and security partner of the Maldives. The developments during the visit are also expected to boost the position of Solih in the next presidential election where he is likely to face major challenges from pro-China former president Abdulla Yameen.

In the Maldives, China has been trying to make major inroads through its infrastructural push. The Maldives being a developing country requires infrastructural development to improve connectivity. It is an archipelago nation and perhaps is a country the most spread out. Even the airport in Male city is on a different island, called Hulhule. The Chinese connected Hulhule with Male by constructing a bridge. 

The bridge was initially welcomed by Maldivians but their euphoria soon vanished when they realized that these grand Chinese infrastructural projects were coming at a great cost. It was creating a huge debt burden on the country. The Maldives feared that it might also fall into a debt trap like neighbouring Sri Lanka. At the same time, it wanted its infrastructural needs taken care of without creating a burden for the country.

Improving connectivity

India being one of the closest neighbours of the Maldives is trying to help the country improve its connectivity. With this objective, the Great Male Connectivity Project has been launched. One of the objectives of Solih’s visit was to participate in the virtual "pouring of the first concrete” ceremony indicating a formal launch of the project. This project will connect the four islands -- Male, Villingili, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi. This will cut down logistics costs and drive people-centric economic growth in those islands.

This will be one of the largest projects carried out by India in the neighbourhood. Its cost is around $500 million, out of which $100 million is grant funds. Both leaders appeared keen to see the project completed on time. India also offered a new Line of Credit of $100 mn to finance infrastructure projects in the Maldives. 

Besides, India is already developing 4,000 social housing units in Greater Male under the buyer’s credit financing of Exim Bank of India. This project has been designed to meet the objective of the government of the Maldives to provide affordable housing to its citizens. 

India has decided to construct another 2,000 social housing units in Greater Male at the cost of $ 119 million. An agreement for that was also signed. 

India at present is engaged in 45 community development projects that are being implemented through its grant assistance. These projects are bringing positive changes in the lives of island communities.

Defence ties

India and the Maldives are also close defence partners. Both sides reiterated this by saying that their partnership was a force for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. A number of steps were also taken to deepen this partnership. It was recognized by both sides that their security was interlinked and they have to be mindful of each other’s security concerns. They also promised not to let their respective territories be used for any activity inimical to the other.

India announced the supply of a second Landing Assault Craft (LAC) and a replacement ship for one provided earlier for the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). India also gifted 24 utility vehicles to the MNDF. Solih acknowledged India’s contribution to the modernisation of MNDF.

India is developing a Coast Guard Harbour at SIFAVARU. This project is expected to assist the Maldives in enhancing the capability of the MNDF in exercising jurisdiction and undertaking maritime surveillance of its EEZ and atolls. 

In the Maldives, the pro-China leader Abdulla Yameen has been critical of this project. He has alleged that through this project Indian troops would be stationed in the Maldives. He is also running an "India Out" campaign on social media, accusing the Solih regime of compromising the country's sovereignty.

Propaganda against India

India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a special briefing dismissed these allegations and stated that the "India Out" campaign in the Maldives was based on "misinformation and false propaganda". 

Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, Munu Mahawar, said the campaign was being run by the Maldivian opposition for political gains. At the same time, India assured that it will remain the first responder to any crisis the Maldives faces as it has been in the past.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined that the Maldives occupies a special place in India’s Neighbourhood First policy while Solih reiterated his country’s India First policy. Six pacts were signed to facilitate cooperation in capacity building, cyber security, housing, disaster management and infrastructure.

Though the Solih visit went off very well, the concerns remained over domestic politics in the Maldives. The infighting in the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) seems to be intensifying. Mohamed Nasheed remains keen on contesting the next presidential elections but his grip over the MDP has weakened. Now a majority of lawmakers are supporting Solih. The political environment has got further vitiated after the arrest of Nasheed’s brother over charges of homosexuality. 

Moreover, the lawmakers are also planning to bring a no-confidence motion in Parliament to remove Nasheed as speaker. If this happens, it will give a major jolt to the MDP before the next elections. This will also jeopardize the chances of Solih's return to power and adversely affect the India-Maldives bilateral relationship.

(The author is an associate fellow in the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Views are personal)

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