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India-Maldives Relations

Context: India is keeping a close eye on the presidential election runoff in the Maldives scheduled for September 30 as the results will determine the strength of India’s ties with the Maldives.

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  • A runoff election is a second election that is held to determine the winner of a race when no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the first election.
  • Maldives’ electoral system is similar to France, where the winner has to secure more than 50% of votes. If no one crosses the mark in the first round, in the second round, the top two candidates go head-to-head.
  • In the first round of polling, Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih got 39% of the votes, while the Opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu got 46%.
  • Why are the runoff elections important for India?
    • If President Solih, who is seen as friendly to India, is re-elected, it is likely that India’s ties with the Maldives will remain strong.
    • On the other hand, Mohamed Muizzu is seen as pro-China. Muizzu has been critical of India’s role in the Maldives in the past, and he has accused India of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

About Maldives

  • The Maldives is an island country in the Indian Ocean, located about 400 kilometers southwest of India.
  • The Maldives is made up of over 1,100 coral islands, which are grouped into 26 atolls.
  • The majority of the Maldivian population adheres to Sunni Islam.
  • The official language of the Maldives is Dhivehi, which is an Indo-Aryan language.
  • However, being a lowlying nation, Maldives remains highly susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change and rising sea levels.

Significance of Maldives for India

  • Geostrategic: Maldives is an important member of India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision.
  • Geopolitical: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), involving the Maldives has widened the Chinese sphere of influence that has potential to adversely affect India’s interests.
  • Geo-economic: 50% of India’s external trade and 80% of our energy imports transit through the Sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) in the vicinity of the Maldives.
  • Net Security Provider: Maldives is positioned like a “toll gate” between the western and Eastern Indian Ocean. Hence, it becomes an important partner in India’s role as the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region.
  • Regional Cooperation: Both Nations are engaged through platforms like SAARC, SASEC, IORA and IONs.

India-Maldives relations: Brief background

  • India was among the first to recognize Maldives after its independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with the country.
  • Both countries share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links steeped in antiquity.
  • Maldives established a full-fledged High Commission in New Delhi in 2004, which was one of only four diplomatic missions at that time.
  • Except for a brief period between February 2012 to November 2018, relations have been close, cordial and multi‐dimensional.
  • The relation is free of any politically contentious issues. The one‐time claim of Maldives to Minicoy Island was resolved by the Maritime Boundary Treaty of 1976 between the two countries, whereby Maldives has recognized Minicoy as an integral part of India.

Key Areas of Cooperation between India and Maldives

Economic and Trade Relations
  • India‐Maldives bilateral trade crossed the $ 300 mn mark for the first time in 2021, reaching an impressive $ 323.29 mn.
  • India emerged as Maldives’ 2nd largest trade partner in 2020.
  • Indian imports from the Maldives primarily comprise scrap metals while exports include a variety of engineering and industrial products like drugs and pharmaceuticals, agriculture produce, poultry produce etc.
Security and Defence Cooperation
  • India provides the largest number of training opportunities for Maldivian Defence Force, meeting around 70% of their defence training requirements.
  • A comprehensive Action Plan for Defence was also signed in April 2016 to consolidate defence partnership.
Development Cooperation
  • India has completed several projects in health and education sector in Maldives. E.g., Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Maldives Institute of Technical Education.
  • A US$ 800 million Credit Line Agreement signed between the two countries in March 2019 for financing connectivity and infrastructure projects.
  • India is also offering USD 100 million grant support to the Greater Male Connectivity Project which will be a major catalyst for the Maldivian economy.
  • Tourism: India is one of the largest sources of tourist arrivals in Maldives.
  • Culture: Exchange of cultural troupes takes place regularly between the two counties. The Indian Cultural Centre (in Male) was inaugurated in 2011 to give a further boost to the cultural activities.
  • People-to-People contacts: Indians are the second largest expatriate community in Maldives. Also, India is a preferred destination for Maldivian for education, medical treatment, recreation and business.

Challenges in India Maldives Relations

  • Political Instability: Recent political instability in the Maldives, marked by frequent changes in government, has made it difficult for India to maintain a steady relationship with the nation.
  • China’s influence: China has been increasing its influence in the Maldives in recent years.
    • In 2018, the Maldives government signed a $1 billion deal with China to develop a new airport on Hulhumalé Island.
    • According to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 63% of Maldivians have a favorable view of China, while only 35% have a favorable view of India.
  • Radicalization and Terrorism: The rise of Islamist radicalism in the Maldives, coupled with the possibility of terrorist groups using remote islands as launch pads for attacks against India, has raised security concerns.
  • Climate Change: Maldives’ vulnerability to climate change, including rising sea levels and natural disasters, has implications for India’s security and development interests.
  • Development: Unequal development among atolls and lack of funds to develop connectivity and infrastructure pose challenges for initiating various development projects in the region.
  • GMR Issue: The termination of the agreement with GMR for the modernization of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, followed by arbitration and the subsequent award of the project to a Chinese company, has strained India-Maldives relations.

Way Forward

  • India and Maldives should build on their existing foundation of strong ties and mutual interests to address the challenges that they face, such as political instability, and radicalization etc.
  • Nuanced approach: India should not view Maldives through the prism of India-China rivalry, but should instead focus on building a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.
  • Gujral doctrine: To guide India-Maldives relations, five basic principles of Gujral doctrine are relevant:
    • With Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, India would not ask for reciprocity, but do all it could in good faith and trust;
    • Not allowing one’s territory to be used against another country;
    • Non-interference in the internal affairs of another;
    • Respecting one another’s territorial integrity and sovereignty;
    • Settling disputes peacefully through bilateral negotiations.

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