When a newly-elected president of Maldives prepares for an official visit to India soon after his country publicly expresses its desire to pull out of a Free Trade Agreement with China, the diplomatic import of such a decision is likely to be felt in capitals far beyond Male’s shores.
The proposed visit of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is likely to take place in the third week of December—his first foreign tour after being elected head of state of this strategically important Indian Ocean archipelago nation. His foreign minister Shahid Abdulla’s two-day visit to Delhi from November 26 is likely to firm up the exact date and programme of Solih’s tour.
In recent years, the growing Sino-Indian rivalry for expanding influence in the region has been seen as a key factor behind every important development in South Asian countries. Maldives, which had been facing a long spell of instability and political unrest, was no exception.
The forthcoming presidential visit restores India’s clout in Maldives, a country that had witnessed a series of fast-paced developments ever since 2008, when it held its first democratic parliamentary elections. Many of these had been of concern to India, as some political dispensations tried to marginalise New Delhi’s traditional influence over the island nation and sought to woo China as the new, key player.
Given this history, most observers saw the September election—in which joint-opposition candidate Solih defeated incumbent president Abdulla Yameen—in the framework of the Sino-Indian binary.
In the past 10 years, some high-profile Indian investments in Maldives, like the GMR project of building a new airport, had run into serious trouble and were forced to be withdrawn. In contrast, Chinese investment and influence in Maldives grew significantly. This gave rise to concerned speculation that India had been cast aside by its biggest Asian competitor and rival China in this nation.
Yameen, who had a penchant for strong-arm tactics, including imposing ‘emergency’, to silence and stifle opponents—former presidents, Supreme Court judges, parliamentarians, journalists—in his quest for absolute power, was regarded as close to China. Despite keeping up the façade of recognising India’s importance for the country, New Delhi-Male relations were seriously strained during his five-year presidency.
Solih’s campaign before the presidential election was on a ‘India-first’ plank that promised to not only restore all democratic rights in Maldives, but also to give the primacy of place in Maldivian foreign policy to India.
The changed political scenario was monitored in New Delhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence at Solih’s inaugural ceremony in Male last week, where he was the only head of government to be invited for the occasion, clearly showed Male was keen on course correction.
President Solih had confessed to the Indian PM about the “dire economic situation” the country faces as he takes office and was assured by Modi of India’s extensive economic and developmental support, particularly in housing, infrastructure and in the construction of water and sewerage systems. He had also invited Solih to come to New Delhi—the forthcoming presidential visit stems from the conversation of the two leaders.
However, a major worry remains on how China was likely to react if its economic interests, particularly the heavy investments it has made in Maldives, are jeopardised. Irrespective of a pro-India dispensation, most observers acknowledge the importance of China in Maldives’s development. Indian officials argue that despite talks of the ongoing Sino-Indian rivalry, as long as Indian economic interests are not hampered and no serious threat is posed to its security, it has no worries over China’s growing footprint in Maldives.
The Maldivian islands’ geographical location near the important channel in the Indian Ocean, through which a lot of commerce is conducted, makes it extremely important for both India and China. Their rivalry notwithstanding, Sino-Indian mutual interest could ensure that peace and stability in Maldives remains their top priority.
- Newly-elected Maldives president Solih will visit India in December, a sign of India gaining primacy in his foreign policy
- India has promised development aid to Maldives, but irrespective of the Sino-Indian rivalry, China is crucial for the nation too