Neighbourhood First

The opposition alliance in the Maldives is voicing its concerns against the archipelago’s increasing bonhomie with India. Will the on-going agitation exert influence on the Maldives’ foreign policy?

By Muhammad Omar Iftikhar | February 2023

Led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the current government of the Maldives seems to have shifted its focus entirely towards India with hopes to build a strong relationship with New Delhi. The world, especially the South Asian region, has been viewing this closeness with curiosity. This shift in economic policy towards India will – as researchers and analysts opine – comes with economic benefits and security that India will provide to the Maldives. Former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom is not accepting this newfound trust that his country’s present government has found in India. It has been reported that he has called for the government to re-evaluate this relationship which turned full circle when Ibrahim Mohamed Solih took office as the President of the Maldives in November 2018.

During President Solih’s visit to India, various decisions were made. India announced to supply the Maldives with a second Landing Assault Craft (LCA) and a replacement ship for the earlier provided CGS Huravee. With this maritime inventory, the Maldives is sure to enhance its Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). LCA is an amphibious naval vessel used to transport ground forces along with landing helicopter docks during amphibious assault operations. India also announced to increase in the MNDF’s infrastructure by ‘gifting’ twenty-four Utility Vehicles. Furthermore, a $50 million Line of Credit facility, in the form of grant assistance, has been approved. This will help the Maldives complete several defence projects. As many as six agreements were signed between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Solih. These range from cyber security, disaster management, and housing. The two leaders deliberated upon the future of their joint concerns including maritime security, maritime domain awareness, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance. Prime Minister Modi has also shown an interest to bolster ties with the Maldives with India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). At the forefront of collaborating in construction projects, both countries are cooperating in the pre-construction of the Coast Guard Harbour on one of the islands of the Maldives. This will augment the capabilities of the MNDF about pursuing maritime surveillance, especially of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

During his visit to India in August this year, President Solih reiterated the Maldives’ India-first policy. “Reliable ally” is how President Solih described India when commenting on the relations during a media briefing. Solih said, “India is almost always, our first responder in times of crises, and is amongst the loudest supporters in times of good fortune. This is why my Administration’s ‘India First’ policy is so crucial to ensure that our longstanding ties continue to weather the test of time. It is during my Administration thus far, that we have reached the pinnacle of our diplomatic and economic relations.”

In the meantime, the opposition in the Maldives has been vocally promoting the “India Out” campaign. It has claimed that India placed its military in the Maldives. Such allegations have been denied by the Maldives’ government.

On the defense front, there was a reiteration of the need to strengthen the relationship. In April 2016 a comprehensive action plan for defence was signed between the countries. Moreover, India provides nearly 70% of defence training requirements for the MNDF. During the last decade, India has trained over 1,400 MNDF trainees.

India-Maldives relations will not go unnoticed by regional players. China, in this regard, played a wild card by hosting the 19-nation ‘China-Indian Ocean Region (IOR) Forum’. The hybrid forum, held at Kunming (southwestern Yunnan province) on November 21, did not invite India. According to reports, the forum was attended by Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Oman, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Djibouti, Australia and representatives of three international organizations. However, the Maldives denied participating in this forum. One news outlet reported that “China quietly holds first China-Indian Ocean Region forum without India”. The word ‘silent’ has immense meaning. India and China have not been on the same page regarding geopolitical issues and this forum reflected the same.

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