The defeat of Abdulla Yameen and emergence of Mohammad Solih, consensus candidate of the joint opposition, emerging winner in the recent presidential election was a stroke of luck for India and somewhat disappointing for China. Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Maldives to attend the swearing in ceremony of new President Mohammad Solih, on invitation of the latter. Prime Minidter Modi was scheduled to visit Maldives, along with Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, in March 2015. However, the visit to Maldives was shelved last minute because of political instability in that country. Because of this, India setting up a radar network of 10 x Coastal Surveillance Radar Stations across Maldives linked with Indian military surveillance systems agreed under the 2009 bilateral India-Maldives defence pact (for mutual benefit of both countries) also was postponed.
On 11 October 2015, Maldives expressed hope that PM Narendra Modi would visit the country “very soon” as it admitted disappointment over his skipping the island nation tour to the region in March 2015. Even after Maldives President Yameen visited India in April 2016, no reciprocal visit by Prime Minister Modi was announced. This certainly didn’t appear in synch with the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and perhaps indirectly assisted China consolidate her hold over Maldives. The tenet of diplomacy should be treating the other nation on equal footing and Maldives very much is in ambit of ‘Neighbours First’. If Prime Minister Modi could request informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping despite the Doklam standoff, could he have not visited Maldives to check the deteriorating bilateral relationship?
The then President of Maldives Mohammad Nasheed, along with Heads of State of all other SAARC nations, was invited in 2014 for the swearing in of Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet in 2014. However, from the Maldivian point of view, would the country not feel snubbed with Modi as Prime Minister as of November 2018 having made 40 foreign visits spanning six continents, visited 58 countries including the visits to USA to attend the UN General Assembly, to Asian countries, following his ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies, but not a single visit to Maldives. Admittedly China’s growing influence over Maldives is cause of concern considering Maldives important to India for maritime security, but this was all the more reason to keep Maldives engaged at level of the Head of State.
Before Modi’s maiden visit to Maldives to attend the swearing in ceremony of Solih, MEA clarified that Modi’s visit was not a “bilateral” visit, stating, “In keeping with its neighbourhood first policy, India looks forward to closely working with Maldives in further deepening the partnership”. Whether this visit by Modi should have been combined with a bilateral visit is open question. China is already making determined efforts to woo Solih to ensure the strategic gains she has made in Maldives in recent years do not get diluted by the exit of Abdulla Yameen. Whether combining Modi’s trip with bilateral visit was discussed with Maldives at all is not known but it would have certainly demonstrated to Maldives importance to India, especially since next visit by Modi will perhaps happen only after the 2019 general elections. The fact that India remained mute spectator to deteriorating India-Maldives over past four years despite former Maldives President Yameen visiting India in April 2016 is perhaps a foreign policy failure of sorts.
China has debt-trapped Maldives by $1.3 billion during Yameen’s five-year regime (which represents more than quarter of its GDP) and Chinese firms are engaged in some 17 projects in Maldives. IMF predicts Maldivian debt to reach 121% of GDP by 2020. Maldives has also signed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, second country in South Asia after Pakistan, and Maldives’ markets are flush with Chinese goods without import duty. For China, Maldives is a maritime pivot along its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives in September 2014 and secured Yameen’s support for China’s 21st century maritime silk route. Since 2016, China is developing Gadhoo island, 437 km from Male; likely future supply-berthing-maintenance base, similar to what China has in outer islands of Seychelles.
For India, the challenge now is to contend with Chinese strategy in India inimical to Indian national interests and increased Chinese hold on Maldives. India may also find it problematic to install coastal surveillance radars in Maldives, as agreed to under the India-Maldives pact of 2009. Ibrahim Mohamed Didi, Member Parliament recently raised objections to former President Mohamed Nasheed’s proclamation of India’s previous ties with Addu City; denouncing it should not be inferred that Addu or any other Maldivian territory can be used for Indian military purposes, stating, “We do not believe in any way that this country will serve the military purposes of any country. Also I do not believe that there is even a possibility of our state allowing such course of actions.” According to President Solih’s stated defence policies, Maldives will give utmost priority of safeguarding the independence of its allies and neighbouring countries; unbiased policies of foreign affairs shows that the country’s ‘first line of defence’ can be achieved.
Maldives has been under the specter of Islamic radicalization, backed by China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. By end 2017 Maldives had sent some 400 ISIS fighters to Syria-Iraq. India must take this factor also into account. No doubt India will be working at reviving projects in Maldives. It is good that India has taken the initiative to help bring Maldives into the India Ocean Rim Association (IORA) during the recent meeting in South Africa. Maldives under Solih obviously will realize the need to retain the country’s sovereignty even as China will exert pressure through its debt trap, projects, goods and mass of tourists – pressure at multiple levels to keep Maldives in its clutches. India will, therefore, too should engage Maldives consistently at multiple levels, political apex included. In doing so, India must revive the ‘India-Sri Lanka- Maldives Indian Ocean Trilateral’, with Seychelles and Mauritius as observers, followed by full membership. India must also engage the US to invest in Maldives under plan of the Trump Administration to invest in Asia parallel to China’s BRI.