India’s good gesture towards Maldives

India’s announcement of a $1.4 billion financial assistance package to the Maldives will go some way in drawing the strategically-located Indian Ocean archipelago out of the Chinese sphere of influence. The assistance, which will include budgetary support, currency swap agreements and concessional lines of credit, was announced during the first official visit of Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to India. This is expected to reduce Male’s dependence on China. India-Maldives relations deteriorated drastically during the authoritarian rule of Solih’s predecessor, Abdulla Yameen. Yameen developed a strong economic and strategic relationship with the Chinese and in the process, drove the country into massive debt owed to China — the Maldives reportedly owes China over $3 billion in debt, making it vulnerable to Chinese pressure. Not only did Yameen undermine his country’s ‘India First’ policy, a founding principle of Maldives’ foreign policy but also weakened India’s security interest. With Yameen’s ouster from power, space has opened up for the new government to correct the Maldives’ excessive tilt towards China. But such correction requires Maldives to be less dependent on Chinese investment. India’s $1.4 billion aid will provide the archipelago with a lifeline.

During Solih’s visit to India, the two sides identified areas for development cooperation, including construction of housing and infrastructure, water and sewerage systems in the outlying islands, healthcare, education and tourism. They agreed to reinforce maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean region through coordinated patrol and aerial surveillance. India has also promised the Maldives 1,000 additional slots over the next five years for training and capacity building in fields such as policing and law enforcement, local governance, sports, etc.

India and the Maldives have taken the first steps towards reviving their friendship. However, governments in both countries should be cautious as it may not be easy for the Solih government to wriggle free from China’s grip. Cancelling contracts with China for loans and infrastructure building will not be easy and will come with a cost that could be too high for the Maldives to bear. Solih’s visit was positive and he and his party may be inclined to improving ties with India but that should not be read to mean that his government wants to break ties with Beijing. How the India-Maldives relationship evolves in the coming years will depend on how Delhi engages Male. It should deliver on its promises. Yameen began his presidency with positive words for India but before long, relations soured, pushing him to embrace China. In addition to avoiding past mistakes, Delhi should avoid following the Chinese route to taking control of Maldives. Indian interests will be best served by contributing to Maldives development and engaging it with respect and sensitivity.

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India’s good gesture towards Maldives

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