Maldives Returns to ‘India First’ policy but China is There to Stay
Journalist & Researcher,
media & foreign policy consultant, strategic affairs analyst , New Delhi
In the last year of its governance the Modi government can claim a foreign policy triumph in
its Neighbourhood First policy – in renewed ties with the Maldives. While the Neighbourhood
First policy started with a bang it seems to be ending with the proverbial whimper. Relations
with Pakistan have not moved ahead, uncertainty over Afghanistan looms large like never
before, Nepal and Sri Lanka seem to be drawing closer in the Chinese embrace, and Bhutan
seems to be following a wait and watch policy after the Doklam standoff in 2017.
Against this backdrop the newly elected government of President Ibrahim Solih and the restoration of democracy in the Maldives bodes well for India. After all, Maldives looms large on India’s strategic radar, located at a mere 700 kms from India’s Lakshwadeep islands, located along major sea lanes in the Indian Ocean through which much of the world’s trade, especially energy supplies from the Gulf, flows.
And India had watched with despair as under the former dictator Abdulla Yameen it slid steadily into chaos. Yameen had rendered the Maldivian Parliament irrelevant; had convicted the former pro-India President Nasheed on terror charges, sacked the Chief Justice and anther judge of the Supreme Court. Under his watch, corruption reached unprecedented heights and religious radicalism expanded in the hundred per cent Muslim country; many Maldivian youth flocked to the jihad in Syria, and Maldives national debt has ballooned to almost $ 3 billion (by most estimates). Along with all this Yameen also pitched for closer ties to China, while simultaneously weakening the close linkages that the island nation had hitherto shared with India.
Seizing the opportunity, Prime Minister Modi flew to Male to attend the swearing in ceremony of the new president Solih. Maldives had been the only SAARC country left unvisited by the Prime Minister because of its internal turmoil there. In Male as Modi pledged India’s unwavering support and cooperation for Maldives’ sustained development, Solihsignalled that Maldives would revert to its India First policy, based on the recognition of the bilateral aid and assistance that India had been providing over the years to the island nation, which had also included military intervention to thwart a coup by Tamil militants there.
In an equally symbolic gesture, President Solih visited India – his first state visit to any country – exactly a month since his swearing in. He was accompanied by a large delegation, and an equally large delegation comprising numerous senior cabinet members visited Delhi few days prior to that, looking to promote Indian trade and investment in Maldives which had received a great setback under the Yameen regime when ties with India had been drastically downsized.
In Delhi, Modi reiterated India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and ‘all possible support to Maldives in realising its aspirations for socio-economic development”, promising financial assistance worth $1.4 billion to the nation reeling under a massive debt, along with numerous other commitments for training and capacity building, including the Maldives Police Service and National Defence Force. In turn Solih reiterated Maldives’ commitment to the traditional ‘India First’ policy that his government would follow.
Encouraging though these developments have been all may not be smooth sailing as yet for India.
Under Abdulla Yameen’s rule, the Maldives had received massive Chinese investments for major infrastructure projects and also signed a free trade agreement, which breezed through parliament within a mere ten minutes. The Laamu Atoll link road, for instance, was China’s gift to the island nation. Because of its strategic location, Maldives became important to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. By some estimates its debt to China for various infrastructure projects alone is around $2.5 billion. While the current Maldives government will be scrutinizing all deals signed under the previous government, it has also made it clear that it would not rescind any agreements signed with China, including the FTA. While a commission will be set up to look into charges of corruption and individual deals, and Maldives will seek to renegotiate its debt it will honour all agreements signed to protect the reputation of the government and country.
Meanwhile the Chinese ambassador to the Maldives Zhang Lizhong ha pegged the debt to China at $600 million with a 2 percent interest and a five year grace period, and dismissed claims of a ‘Chinese debt trap’. More recently the Chinese government honoured the Maldivian envoy to Beijing (along with envoys of a few other countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka) with a special award for their contribution to the BRI project. China has invested massively in Maldives building infrastructure as part of its BRI project. IN turn Maldives was one of the first countries to sign up to the BRI. The Maldivian envoy to Beijing Mohamed Faisal is reported to have said that the Maldives has ‘high expectation’ from the BRI. It is thus clear that China is here to stay in the Maldives, which is an important stop on its coveted BRI and is making overtures to President Solih to hedge the investments it has made thus far.
India will thus have to contend that along with the return to its ‘India First Policy’, China is there to stay in Maldives in the foreseeable future.
Strategic-perspective of India-Maldives relations
Visiting Fellow with Future Directions International,Perth
As India is ready to play a major role in the International Arena especially in the Indo-Pacific region, it’s expected that India will assert itself in the immediate neighbourhood.
As a part of its expanding maritime strategy, India will also seek to consolidate its existing maritime co-operation with Maldives. At present, India and Maldives presently have a trilateral maritime security co-operation agreement including with Sri Lanka that might, in the future, expand into an informal strategic partnership, if not an alliance, aimed at curtailing Chinese maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Arrangements such as the trilateral help India to expand its role and presence in the Indian Ocean by adding subtle diplomacy and capacity-building to the forward naval presence described earlier.
India’s enhanced military ties with Maldives is a significant move to promote long term military deterrence against China’s increased maritime profile in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), exemplified by the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. As a part of this strategy, China has tried to encircle India by building deep water ports in Pakistan’s Gwadar city in Baluchistan province and in Sri Lanka’s southern tip of Hambantota. Analysts believe that the defence pact with Maldives is the first step by India to counter the Chinese strategy. India also plans to deepen relations with new allies in other archipelago nations such as Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar. Further, India is expected to assist in the construction of a naval base off the main island of Male, based on the request made by Maldives President Abdulla YameenGayoom. This will enable India to have a forward maritime presence in the Indian Ocean at a time when India is expanding its Western Fleet and building a base in Karwar.
Boosting that forward naval presence by expanding its links in the Indian Ocean will, therefore, be a priority for the Modi Government. In addition to contributing to a more effective maritime strategy, it could also complement the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), as both India and Sri Lanka are members. So, too, are Mauritius and the Seychelles and the initiative may encourage the Maldives to join IORA
Earlier, India has signed a bilateral pact with the Maldives to counter China’s strategic growing presence in the Indian Ocean region. The pact was signed in August 2009 during Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s visit there. He was accompanied by an Indian military delegation which included top navy officials. Under the pact, the two countries have agreed to bolster defence co-operation aimed at fortifying the security of Maldives. India will set up a network of 26 radars across the Maldives’ 26 atolls, which will be linked to the Indian coastal command. In addition, India will also establish an air force station from where Dornier aircraft will carry out surveillance flights. The station will also host Indian military helicopters. India has also pledged to build a 25-bed military hospital in Male.
The Maldives forms a vital cog in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. According to Robert D. Kaplan, the Indian Ocean could be at the centre of an emerging rivalry between India and China in the coming decades, with the United States playing the role of a moderator. Traditionally, all great powers that aspired to control the Indian Ocean have sought a base in the Maldives – Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The southern most island of the Maldives, the Gan Island in the Seenu Atoll, served as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War II. Gan met the requirements for safe, deep anchorage in a strategic area. In addition to Gan, Antsiranana (Diego-Suarez), Diego Garcia, Aldabra and Farquhar islands and Île Desroches in Seychelles are other important strategic locations in the Western Indian Ocean. The Naval Base in Gan was set up by Britain in response to Japanese advances against Singapore and Indonesia during World War II. During the Cold War, in 1957, it was transferred to the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF vacated it in 1971 after Maldives gained independence in 1965. Following the British departure, the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Gadaffi of Libya, and the Soviet Union all tried to secure the Gan Island base to counter the US military presence in Diego Garcia.
The network of radars that India has installed in the Maldives is chiefly to benefit the island nation which does not have a Navy of its own. During discussions, the Maldivian authorities had expressed concerns over the “crucial tasks of safeguarding and protecting their vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Maldives, while expressing its need to develop and enhance maritime surveillance and aerial mobility capabilities.” From the Indian perspective, the Indo-Maldives security pact is driven by the strategic importance of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean scheme of things as well as by the need to thwart any further seaborne terror attacks on the country. The island nation could serve as a potential launch pad for terrorists targeting India and there are concerns about the activities of radical elements in the Maldives. In 2007, evidence emerged of Islamist activity in the Maldives, including the bombing of tourist resorts in Male’s Sultan Park and the establishment of a Sharia-based mini-state on the Island of Himandhoo. In addition, Indian intelligence agencies have come across information that Faisal Haroun, a top Lashkar-e–Taiba operative who earlier oversaw the group’s India-focused operations from Bangladesh, has had been attempting to set up an Indian Ocean base for the group. Along with a Male-based Maldives resident, Ali Assham, Haroun has studied how to use a deserted Indian Ocean island to build a weapons storehouse, from where they could be moved to Kerala and then on to the rest of India.
India’s forging of defence ties with the Maldives is also driven by the growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. It appears that India is courting new allies to ensure that the Indian Ocean does not become a Chinese lake in the long run.
This is an opportune visit from India, as it is at a time when China is expanding its activity and spreading its influence in the Maldives. Due to its geographical location in the Indian Ocean alongside major shipping lanes, the Maldives is of strategic interest for both China and India. China has recently opened an embassy in Malé, which symbolises its increasing interest in the Maldives. However, it is yet to be seen whether or not the Maldives become another platform on which the Sino-Indian rivalry will play out.
The Chola armies went on the offensive into the Deccan Plateau, defeating the Chalukyas and capturing their critical strongholds. In the west, the Cholas expanded their maritime supremacy towards the Arabian Sea, occupying the Lakshadweep-Maldives archipelagos; striding the ancient Indian Ocean trade routes, and made several successive soul.
Forming the same route, will allow India to increase its forward maritime presence in the Indian Ocean and might encourage similar arrangements with other Indian Ocean states, such as the Seychelles and Mozambique. It would draw the western and southern reaches of the Indian Ocean into an Indian security grid at the same time that India is also expanding its Western Fleet and building a base in Karwar. It would also help to keep India proportionate to the Chinese South Sea Fleet’s expanding presence in the Indian Ocean.
As India’s profile in the Indian Ocean rises and the Indian government focuses on strengthening existing relations with immediate neighbours in South Asia, Indo-Maldives relations are all set to reach new highs, which will be a benchmark for other countries in the region.
Maldives is an important component of India’s maritime strategy, considering its expanding presence in the western Indian Ocean with its commercial and strategic route to Africa extending to the Western Hemisphere. The significance of the island nation was reinforced by the 2009 defence pact signed between India and the Maldives to boost strategic ties during the visit of former Defence Minister A.K. Antony.
The agreement, which was reached at the highest politico-military level, includes operational assistance by India’s tri-services to the Maldives Armed Forces and intelligence sharing. As per this bilateral defence pact, the two countries have agreed to bolster defence cooperation aimed at fortifying Maldivian security. India has agreed to set up a radar network across the Maldives, which will benefit the island nation as it does not have a Navy of its own. These maritime network radars will be linked with Indian military surveillance systems. The defence pact also includes protection of the Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone and enhances cooperation in maritime surveillance and aerial mobility. Warships of the Indian Navy and Coastguard will patrol the pirate-infested waters around Maldives. India has also gifted the fast attack craft, INS Tilanchang to the Maldives as a goodwill gesture.
Considering the importance of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean strategic matrix, all aspiring powers in the Indian Ocean have tried to establish their base there. Though India’s official position so far has not been about acquiring any bases, it is true that increased maritime cooperation with atoll countries, especially Maldives, in the Indian Ocean is very much on the agenda.
Joint Counter-Terrorism Mechanism
Going beyond the strategic importance of Maldives, New Delhi has also understood that increased strategic cooperation, including active counter-terrorism mechanisms, will thwart any further seaborne terror attacks on India, similar to the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. India also understands the shared concern of the United States administration which has identified the Maldives as vulnerable to terrorists and has pledged to provide military equipment and services to the country. These counter-terrorism mechanisms are aimed at curtailing the influence of terrorist organisations seeking to create a base in and around atolls of Maldives. This joint counter-terrorism mechanism will include active intelligence sharing aimed at specifically nullifying any sort of influence that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might have in Maldives in the foreseeable future, considering the volatile situation in West Asia.
In conclusion, Indo-Maldives defence and security ties, which form an important part of India’s strategic outreach to the Indian Ocean, are all set to expand in the foreseeable future, especially in view of the Indian government’s endeavour to include small island nations in its overall Grand Strategy.
It’s expected that despite the present political uncertainty in Maldives and India’s indifference to the country, it’s expected that India-Maldives relationship will grow which will lead into a mutually accepted security and strategic partnership.
From FPRC Archives
FPRC Journal -J 21
FPRC Journal 2015 (1)
India’s neighbourhood policy-post 2014
Q. “Neighbourhood First Policy” propounded by the Narendra Modi government is dubbed
as a bold initiative; a proactive change that offers a fresh opportunity to approach things
differently as India needs peace around the region to get more of the world on board. To
some, it is “ old wine packaged in new bottle” that lacks vision.
How do you assess India’s re-focus on neighbourhood?
(1) Madhukar SJB Rana,
Professor South Asian Institute of Management and Former Finance Minister(2005)
Former Executive Director, Centre For Economic Development and Administration, Tribhubhan
For any nation that aspires to be a major regional power in global affairs it must, first and
foremost, win the confidence and trust of its neighbours.
In India's case, this is particularly vital since it aspires to gain entry into the UN Security
Council and seek to act as a balancing force in the emerging new multi polar geo politics.
I feel that PM Modi's 'neighbourhood first policy' is neither 'bold' nor 'old wine in a new bottle'
since it, yet, lacks strategic clarity. What was bold was the Gujral Doctrine of 1996 which, in
1997, ushered in the concept of sub regional cooperation in the form of the South Asian
Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) later adopted up by the ADB as its SASEC programme for South
Asian Sub regional economic cooperation. Modi's policy is different from the past to the extent
of the formal recognition of sub regional integration as a legitimate SAARC process to be
bolstered by the new stress on road and rail connectivity through India. In the past, India
resolutely avoided its landmass as transit and transhipment corridors: without which
regional or subregional cooperation is reduced to mere rhetoric.
(2) Dr.Daniel S. Markey
Senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International
Studies (SAIS). He is also the academic director for the SAIS Master of Arts in Global Policy
Program and an adjunct senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on
Foreign Relations (CFR).
The "neighbourhood first policy" is a perfectly reasonable idea, but neither especially new nor
an adequate characterization of the Modi foreign policy to date. Other recent Indian
governments have stressed the need to improve diplomatic relationships with nearby states
as an essential step in securing India and advancing its development agenda. I recall, for
instance, that was one of the claims of the Manmohan Singh government when it was newly
installed. This does not undermine the sound strategic underpinnings of such an approach,
and it should not detract from the energetic diplomacy that Prime Minister Modi brought from
his first day on the job when he invited SAARC leaders to his inaugural ceremonies. However,
I think we should also be careful not to overlook the diplomacy that Modi has also pursued
with other states outside the neighborhood, including China, Japan, and the United States.
Few analysts, myself included, would have expected Modi to take quite this active a role on
the global stage, at least not right away. By hosting President Obama for the Republic Day
parade, for instance, Modi made an important diplomatic statement that is not at all captured
by a "neighborhood first policy."
(3) Michael Kugelman
Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza,1300 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20004-3027
I think it represents the proverbial real deal. It marks a genuine effort to cultivate a better
relationship with the broader region. This can be seen from the heavy travel Modi has made
within Asia during his first few months in office; he has travelled to more Asian countries
than to countries anywhere else. He has also sought various agreements—most of them
energy and economic—across the broader region.
This is a strategy that I believe plays into Modi’s desire to increase India’s regional and global
clout through the pursuit of deeper diplomacy—and particularly commercial diplomacy. This
is a model that he would even ideally want to follow in Pakistan: Pursue opportunities for
deeper trade relations with Islamabad in order to reduce tensions on the volatile
Subcontinent. However, whether Pakistan’s security establishment is on board with this idea
is another matter.
(4) Michael Kugelman
Strategic Studies Analyst at CNA Corporation, Arlington, VA, USA
I think Prime Minister Modi’s “Neighborhood First Policy” has mostly been a success. He
began his administration by signaling his intent to refocus India’s attention on its
neighborhood. Inviting SAARC heads of state to attend his inaugural ceremony was an
effective gesture. Observers may see a return to the “Gujral doctrine” of Indian foreign policy.
Although the UPA government pursued efforts to strengthen relations with India’s
neighbors,its foreign policy was hindered by the fact that it rarely impinged on coalition
interests. Within a few months of taking office, Modi made his first bilateral foreign visits to
two neighborhood countries: Bhutan and Nepal. After working to improve bilateral
cooperation with countries in the Ministry of External Affairs’ Northern Division early in his
term, he subsequently traveled to Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Mauritius in 2015—all countries
in the Indian Ocean Division that was created toward the end of the UPA government and
illustrates the broader vision of India’s neighborhood as encompassing the wider Indian
Ocean. Maldives is also part of this division, and Modi reportedly had planned to visit the
country before deciding that the harsh treatment of former president Mohamed Nasheed
warranted omitting Maldives from his tour. Modi’s visit to the other Indian Ocean island
states was well received by the local populations, and he offered each country specific
proposals for expanding cooperation in a variety of areas. More importantly, the fact that
Modi made the trek to these countries is significant considering the many years that passed
without an official visit by an Indian prime minister for bilateral purposes (e.g., Sri Lanka at
28 years; Nepal at 17 years; Seychelles at 34 years; Mauritius at 10 years). Whereas Modi
has systematically attended to countries in the Northern and Indian Ocean divisions, carrying
out visits to the other neighbors will be difficult given greater policy challenges. Minister of
External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar are doing the legwork
on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Previous prime ministers have asserted the
importance of India’s relations with its smaller neighbors; by actually visiting them, Modi is
demonstrating the importance that India places on these countries, which sometimes feel
taken for granted.
(5) N. Sathiyamoorthy
Director - Chennai Chapter, Observer Research Foundation
Journalist and Political Analyst
The initiative had commenced earlier, with predecessor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
coining the phrase of India’s ability to become the ‘net-provider’ of security in the region. To
Modi should go the credit for giving the right mix of push and visibility. He became the first
Indian PM in 25 years (after Rajiv Gandhi, 1984-89, to have an absolute majority in the Lok
Sabha. A change of government in neighbouring Sri Lanka earlier this year also helped, as
the domestic ethnic issue, which has been a part of India’s neighbourhood diplomatic
inheritance, found a way for a newer expression and fresher approach in both nations.
Yet, to Modi should go the credit of giving an imaginative personal touch to the inherited yet
timid, below-the-radar initiative, by inviting SAARC Heads of Government and that of
Mauritius for his Inauguration, when the whole world was watching. Just now it cannot be
dismissed as ‘old wine in a new bottle’ but if we do not pause to study individual nations with
their distinct domestic diversity as they should be understood – and not as how India wants
to understand – it could even become ‘old wine in an older bottle’. Thankfully, there is nothing
by way of wine, old or new, or bottle, old or new, for India just now to bother in a larger
regional context, though at the bilateral level we have had it with almost every one of the
countries, both in the distant and medium past or even more recently (as with Maldives and
the GMR row).
(6) Zafar Sobhan
Editor, Dhaka Tribune
I think the focus is a welcome one and long overdue. It recognizes the fact that many ,if not
most, of the problems we face in the region, can only be resolved at the regional level. It also
recognizes the fact that of all regional groupings, SAARC is the most ineffective, and this has
greatly contributed to our lack of development and advancement as a region. The levels of
intra-SAARC trade, for instance, remains a joke.
However, what remains to be seen is whether the commitment is for real, and, especially,
whether Modi is willing to expend the political capital inside India to make the changes
necessary to bring this vision to fruition. It is unclear how much support there is inside India
for better regional ties, once the actual terms of what this would entail become apparent.
(7) Rajeev Sharma
Strategic Affairs Analyst at New Delhi
This is the right focus. Nothing is more important for India than its immediate and contiguous
neighborhood. The previous governments too followed the same policy. The only difference is
that PM Modi has succeeded in projecting an impression that he is taking up this part of
crucial Indian foreign policy in a much more vigorous manner. His choice of Bhutan as the
first destination of his foreign visit set his neighborhood policy in the right focus. Modi has
been far more successful on the foreign policy front than he has been on the domestic one;
partly because, in foreign policy one does not have to bother about immediate concrete
deliverables. Foreign policy, after all, is not a 100-meter race.
(8) Shahmahmood Miakhel
Country Director, Afghanistan
United States Institute of Peace (USIP),Kabul
You cannot choose neighbors by choice. By default, most of the countries in South Asia are
connected and have common culture, history and interest but unfortunately despite many
common shared of interest, the economic connectivity between countries of this region is
much less developed than many other regions of the world. As we cannot chose our neighbors,
the countries of this region has no other alternative in global competition to have better
relationship, new vision for economic development to uplift the life of their citizens and bring
enduring peace to the region to live side by side. As far as I see, in each country and also in
the region, much of the resources and energy are wasted in negative competition in rather
than for positive competition. If this region collectively changed their mind set of 19th and
20th centuries and look to necessities and realities of the 21st century, they have no option,
not working together. If the countries of this region work together, I strongly believe that this
region have much bigger potential for economic development because of geo-political location
and geo-economic and human resources. If you drink old wine in the right time and not
during working hours, I believe the new package might work. As a bigger country in this
region, India’s responsibility is much more than any other country to work with their
neighbors, demonstrate flexibility and leadership especially to close neighbors to reach
common understanding and find new ways of cooperation. Otherwise, this region might stay
much behind than other part of the world. I believe, economic development and enduring
peace in the region is not possible without regional cooperation. Therefore, Prime Minister
Modi realized the necessity of region cooperation to have new vision and it now depends on
how to develop practical ways to work together.
(9) Chris Ogden
Lecturer in International Relations (Asian Security)
School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, KY16 9AX, UK
1) There have been myriad attempts by generations of Indian leaders to harness better
relations with South Asia. Certainly Mr Modi's approach is aimed at a fresh start for India's
links with the sub-continent and, if successful, can have clear benefits in terms of regional
trade, security and stability. In the current era, and with the current rhetoric of India
becoming a great power, there is mounting concern that India will only become a global power
if she can successfully lead / control her neighbourhood. Modi's central hope is that high
Indian economic growth can trickle down to her region and that South Asia can collectively
rise to prominence on India's rising trajectory. Whilst laudable, I think that these aims are
intrinsically held back by issues raised in point 2) below.
2) The asymmetries between India and her neighbours are numerous; New Delhi has the
lion's share of regional GDP, population and landmass and naturally dominates her
neighbours (at least materially, if not perceptually). On this basis, India is the "Big Brother"
whether she or her neighbours like it or not, and its a reality which is not going to realistically
change any time soon. In turn, she is a democratic success story in a region where her
neighbours are plagued by insecurities and authoritarianism, making it hard for her policy-
makers to find much political common ground. From this dual basis, India's neighbours do
feel innately threatened and their is a tangible trust deficit, which India's leaders can only
manage by trying to be as conciliatory (and not pushy) as possible. The only envy would
really come from Pakistan, which is the only state in the past (and definitely not today) that
had any hope of surmounting India's status.
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