India-Maldives ties have seen a comeback with New Delhi reaching out to the Indian Ocean Island country and the latter in turn reaffirming India first policy. But jog back to 2 years, and the situation was of major concern.
On February 5, 2018, the then President of Maldives Abdulla Yameen, whose closeness with China was well known had declared a state of nation-wide emergency after the Supreme Court overturned criminal convictions against nine major opposition figures. And then the purge started, with rounding up of opposition figures. Those put behind bars included Yameen’s own half-brother former illustrious President of the country, Maumoon Gayoom.
Next 10 months were all about reversing the freedoms in the country and, in terms of foreign policy demolishing the Maldives-India relationship. Tearing the ‘India First’ policy, Yameen attempted to de-couple India from the Maldives, in all spheres.
Recalling Yameen’s tenure, it was undoubtedly the lowest point in the Maldives-India bilateral relationship. China had made inroads into almost all aspects of Maldivian government, tourism and economy, both private and public sectors.
The Maldives China Free Trade Agreement was rammed through the Parliament or People’s Majlis became the symbol of the larger ties between Yameen administration and China. Interestingly Yameen’s government left no records of the plethora of illegal deals undertaken with shady front companies of Beijing.
Yameen had also broken Maldives’ ties with the Commonwealth, distanced the country from its major donors USA, Australia, Japan and the EU. What is perhaps unknown is the increase in drug flow through the Maldivian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on Pakistani dhows spiking during this period. His administration had also suspended established joint protocols for keeping the EEZ secure from illicit activities.
Yameen era from 2013 to 2018 witnessed the rise of radicalized elements within Maldivian society as street gangs and ultra-religious elements held sway over society, a cause of worry given the geo-strategic location of the country.
The elections saw new dispensation led by President Ibu Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party taking charge in November 2018. Indian Prime minister was present at his oath-taking ceremony, taking a six-hour flight to capital Malé. Solih in his first overseas visit paid a state visit to India in December of 2018 during which India announced $1.4 billion financial assistance package.
Last year Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited the country, the first country he visited during his 2nd terms as PM. During the visit, he addressed the Parliament of the country and talked about a number of things including connectivity. He announced a ferry service that will connect India with the Maldives, and the project was implemented just last month.
The cargo ferry from Kochi to Kulhudhufushi/ Malé will increase economic activity in Northern Maldives. The vessel which is used for ferry service can carry 380 TEUs and 3000 MT on bulk cargo and has refrigerated containers. The Cargo service will open the large India market for Tuna exporters of Maldives and will further provide a springboard to Europe through Cochin and Tuticorin ports. Cochin Port has weekly connectivity to Europe through a 6500 TEU vessel.
New Delhi is currently engaged in a number of projects in the country with “no strings attached”. This encompasses sectors like Tourism, community development, education, airport development, and in fact heritage—renovation of the ancient coral mosque. The Indian model of international developmental assistance is unique and based on ‘need-based, high impact’ projects for the local community.
India has engaged in 7 major infrastructure projects in the country under $ 800 million Line of Credit–and these include Water and Sewerage network for 34 islands, Addu Roads and Reclamation project, Gulhifalhu Port, expansion of facilities of Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company, Cricket Stadium in Hulhumale, Hanimaadhoo International Airport expansion and Cancer Hospital in Hulhumale.
Another Line of Credit of $ 400 million and a grant of $ 100 million has been extended for the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP) – the bridge and causeway network that will link Male to Vilingili, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi which is the largest infrastructure project in the country.
The Maldivian economy, highly dependent on tourism from EU, Russia and India, has been hugely impacted by the COVID Crisis. For this India announced $250 million budgetary support last month, which was lauded by Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid during his United Nations General Assembly speech on Tuesday.
He said,”I thank all our partners who have generously extended financial, material and technical support during this crisis, even when they themselves are going through challenging times.”
Adding, “One such example is India. The recent budget support of 250 million US dollars, was the single largest financial assistance from a donor during this pandemic.”
India has been the first responder to all emergencies in the Maldives, be it the 1988 attempted coup d’état, 2004 tsunami, 2014 water crisis, or 2020 covid crisis.
Amidst the COVID crisis, India has reached out to the Maldives in a number of ways including by sending a rapid response team of doctors and specialists, a consignment of 5.5 tons of essential medicines, followed by more consignments & 580 tons of food aid including foodgrains, onions, etc in May. Also, approximately 500 Maldivians in 8 batches of Maldivian patients have travelled to India in the past few weeks.
Meanwhile, new Solih administration was quick to reach out to the world. Maldives re-joined the Commonwealth in 2020 with India’s support, bilateral relations with Japan, Australia and the EU were restored and the ‘India First’ policy was reinstated. The country also finalized a long-pending defence cooperation agreement with the USA.
But there seems to be anxiousness about it in Beijing, given the commentary by Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times. From labelling Indian assistance to the Maldives as ‘politically motivated’, to terming the Maldives-US defence agreement as a ‘threat to India’, China’s angst is clearly reflected in the malicious columns of the Global Times.