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All the Right Voices from Maldives - December 19, 2018

President Solih’s visit to India, making India his first destination for state visit after taking the office, confirms the conventional dictum in the International Relations that all the “developments are subject to change”. Solih’s visit is a reassuring gesture that Maldives continues to be India’s important partner after the two states encountered a troubled phase in their bilateral relations. Maldives, despite a history of good relations with India, remained a major diplomatic challenge for the Modi government. It was the only South Asian state Modi was yet to visit, owing to its continuing political crisis, before finally attending Solih’s swearing in ceremony last month. But as Male remained out of the radar from Modi’s personal outreach, New Delhi uncomfortably watched Maldives drift into the Chinese sphere of influence as it appeared to be a new target of Chinese economic manoeuvering for strategic advancements. The FTA which the two states entered into was a glaring example of the same. It was not just the FTA in itself, but the speed of entering into such an agreement with China, which opened its embassy in Male only in 2011, and the urgency Yameen displayed in getting it approved from the parliament that rang the alarm bells. Of equal concern was the country’s newfound antagonism against India, as was evident when a prominent pro-Yameen newspaper carried an editorial calling India as “biggest-enemy nation” and PM Modi as “anti-Muslim”. Yameen hosting Nawaz Sharif in Male for the Independence Day celebration and Sharif accusing India of “harming SAARC” and “undermining spirit of regional forum” in a joint press conference, accentuated the fear that Maldives was developing into a Chinese strategic asset. The unsettling political developments in a strategically critical archipelago was a diplomatic test for Modi’s neighbourhood policy in a crisis situation. Apparently, India’s silent manoeuvering seems to have yielded results.

As the crisis in Male’ deepened, the quandary for India was how to frame its response. An explicit intervention would have dented its non-interventionist international posturing. Also, the uncertainty of post-intervention scenario constrained India’s option. On the other hand, a complete non-intervention was not only detrimental to India’s interest but would have also sent unsettling signals to the pro-India constituency in Maldives, which prominently included the opposition voices, who have been continuously calling for India’s help. Even the public opinion within the country was slowly tilting towards a decisive action.The recent developments however suggest that India’s ‘patient outreach’ is yielding results with the President Solih taking the office. With his Presidency, India is finally hearing all the right voices it always wanted to hear from the island nation.

Soon after his election, Solih declared India as Maldives’ “closest ally” and guaranteed “that it will remain that way” signalling a decisive shift from the Yameen’s China’s tilt. As Modi attended Solih’s swearing in ceremony, his cordial overtures with the former Presidents Nasheed and Gayom signalled a continuity in New Delhi-Male relations dubbing the Yameen period as an aberration. In their first ever Joint Statement, Modi and Solih“agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean and being mindful of each other’s concerns and aspirations for the stability of the region”. As Solih acknowledged the dire economic situation facing the country, the two leaders also “discussed ways in which India can continue development partnership, particularly to help the new government in meeting its pledges to the people of the Maldives”. Both these pronouncements precisely address the Indian concerns of China’s increasing economic and strategic influence in the crucial Indian Ocean state. Earlier, Solih openly warned about the looming debt with the China after their investments, especially in the infrastructure as part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Interestingly, in the Joint Statement Solih particularly highlighted ‘the pressing need for increased housing and infrastructure development’ as both the leaders discussed about the developmental plans. India’s announcement to offer $ 1.4 Billion is in continuation of India’s promise of investing in Maldives ‘sustainable development’.

On the Strategic front, India is set to reboot the defence and strategic co-operation with the Maldives as was highlighted in the visit of Foreign Minister of Maldives to India in November where both sides agreed to hold the Defence Cooperation Dialogue to strengthen the existing co-operation and also to explore new areas. The promise made by the India’s Foreign Ministry to deliver the Dornier Aircraft to the Maldives is an example of the expected reboot of the defence ties. Both the leaders also in their recent joint briefing “agreed to strengthen cooperation to enhance maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information and capacity building” signalling a convergence of interest in the crucial Indian Ocean Region. As Maldives pledged its support for India’s candidature for permanent membership of an expanded and reformed UN Security Council and reiterated support for India’s candidature for non-permanent seat for the year 2020-21, the optics and content were equally inspiriting for both the countries. Maldives entry into IORA, strongly backed by India, once again hints towards the growing diplomatic trust that the two countries have gained after a period of troubles. But as India seems to have gained an edge over situation, the dictum ‘that all developments are subject to change’ should guide India’s outreach to not just Maldives but its overall foreign policy.

With continuous reordering of regional and global balance of power, the resultant structural fluctuations are difficult to handle for any country. A vigilant and adaptive foreign and security policy is therefore the only panacea. The recent developments in the Maldives clearly indicate that India has closely been monitoring and even working behind the doors in the entire Maldivian episode. This amounts to another diplomatic win of the Modi governments where composed and patient diplomacy yielded the desired strategic results. Earlier during the Doklam crisis too, even as Chinese unleashed the high octane diplomatic offensive, India silently worked on resolving the conflict. The composure in the diplomatic overtures is a welcome sign in Indian approach. India needs to sustain these efforts and build on the dividends earned to have an advantageous position in the regional space riddled with strategic competitions, emanating essentially from China.

- Prof. Akshay Ranade