Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made an official visit to the Maldives on an invitation of his Maldivian counterpart Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed. This was his first visit to the country after he assumed office as well as the first high-level in-person interaction between the two countries since the outbreak of the Corona Virus in March this year. During the visit, the Foreign Secretary called on President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and had substantial discussions with the Maldivian Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Defence, Finance, Economic Development, Planning, Home Affairs, Tourism, Youth and Sports as well as Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed. A Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in sports and youth affairs, High Impact Community Development Projects, and a US$ 100 million grant to fund the Greater Male connectivity project were signed by the two countries during the visit. Equipment for 67 children’s park across the country was handed over during the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit. Mr. Shringla also reviewed the progress on ongoing projects under Indian development assistance and the agreed outcomes of the sixth Joint Commission meeting held in December 2019, as well as bolstering the bilateral relations further which have improved significantly since President Ibrahim Solih came to power in November 2018.
Bilateral cooperation between the two countries has seen multifaceted growth in the last two years in the spheres of economic, development and infrastructure building, security and defence, maritime, sports, education, health and so on. India has announced a financial package of US$ 1.4 billion and an additional US$ 500 million for Greater Male connectivity project. There is satisfaction on both the sides that a large portion of the India funded projects are already being implemented or are in the process of implementation. Cooperation between the two countries to deal with the challenges posed by Covid-19 is another example of the committed partnership between the two countries. The Maldives was the first and the largest recipient of India’s Covid-19 assistance in the neighbourhood. India’s US$ 250 million budgetary support to the Maldives, allowing Maldivian patients to avail treatment in India during the lockdown period and ‘air bubble’ agreement between the two countries are notable in this regard.
It is relevant to mention, that India has been an important partner of the Maldives since the country got independence in 1965. The relations between the two countries got consolidated after India’s timely assistance to the Maldives to thwart a coup attempt in 1988. Even after the change of political system in the country from one party system to multiparty system and the first presidential elections under the multi-party system in 2008, friendly ties and mutual understanding between the two countries continued. It was only in 2013, under the Presidency of Mohamed Waheed Hassan and President Abdulla Yameen India-Maldives relations declined to the lowest point.
As the administration under President Solih is committed to his ‘India-first policy’, India is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the Maldives occupies a special place in India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. India’s increasing engagement with the Maldives since 2019 is not guided by the desire to counter China, but to restore the time-tested and enduring relationship between the two South Asian neighbours.
The Solih administration has disregarded the baseless allegations against India. Despite the anti-India sentiments propagated by a small section in the Maldives, there is wide-ranging satisfaction among the Maldivian people that India funded projects are transparent, and are designed to meet the specific requirement of the government and people of the Maldives. Indian assistance to the Maldives is not aimed to create just dependency in the Indian Ocean archipelago, but to promote friendship based on mutual interdependency between the two countries. The apt example of this commitment is the launching of a ferry service between the two countries and the Seaplane by India with the assistance of the Maldives.
In addition to bilateral engagement, India is committed to support the Maldives at the multilateral fora. India has ensured its support to Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid’s candidature for Presidency of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2021.
The future of India-Maldives relations looks positive, as both governments are committed to strengthen the bilateral ties. The continued engagement between the two countries at the highest level is desirable for the smooth implementation of the agreed projects.
Script: Dr. Gulbin Sultana, Analyst On Indian Ocean Region