By Anurag Sharma*
On November 26, 2018, the Maldives’ Minister of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) Abdullah Shahid, after his meeting with India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj, tweeted, “A new era of enhanced cooperation emerging in Maldives-India relationship under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih”. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar had, earlier in the day, tweeted, “Harmonious synergy of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ & Maldives’ ‘India First’ policy”.
The two foreign ministers, meanwhile, during the meeting agreed that the State Visit of Maldives’ newly elected President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to India would take place on December 17, 2018.
According to the November 26, 2018, Press Release of India’s Ministry of External Affairs,
EAM [Sushma Swaraj]… stated that “India stands ready to fully support the Government of Maldives in its Socio-Economic development. FM [Maldives’ MoFA] Abdulla Shahid reiterated his Government’s “India First” policy and… reiterated that the government of Maldives will be sensitive towards India’s Security and Strategic concerns. The Ministers discussed security and defence matters including on-going projects and new areas of cooperation. In this regard, they agreed to hold the next meeting of the ‘Defence Cooperation Dialogue’ between both countries in the first half of December 2018.
MoFA Abdullah Shahid had come to India on an official Ministerial visit between November 24-27, 2018, and was accompanied by three other Maldivian Ministers: Minister of Finance, Minister of Economic Development and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, as well as the Foreign Secretary.
Earlier, on November 18, 2018, within 24-hours of the Presidential Oath ceremony of the newly elected Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the Maldives’ new Defence Minister Mariya Didi, confirmed that the Maldives has no intentions to return the two helicopters which were gifted by India upon request from the Maldives, stating, “It is not our culture to ask neighbours [referring to India] to take back what they give.”
In April 2010, India had handed over the first Naval helicopter – ‘Kurangi’, primarily meant for medical evacuations. Since its induction (2010) to the Maldives military, the aircraft had conducted 69 medical evacuations and saved 73 lives, the Indian High Commission had disclosed in January 2016. After the signing of an Indo-Maldives Defence Action Plan on April 11, 2016, India gifted a second Advance Light Helicopter (ALH) – ‘Dhruv’ to the Maldives on April 27, 2016, to be used for transporting patients and for Search and Rescue Operations. “Unlike normal helicopters, this one [the second helicopter] is fully air-conditioned and equipped with facilities to identify people at a distance,” the then-Maldivian Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar had stated.
On November 17, 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Maldives to participate in the Presidential Oath Ceremony. After bilateral talks between Prime Minister Modi and President Solih, a joint press statement reiterated the “resilience of the relations” between the two countries, and stated:
During their meeting, both leaders 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. The two leaders expressed their unwavering commitment and support for increased cooperation in combating terrorism both within the region and elsewhere… Prime Minister Modi assured President Solih of India’s firm commitment in assisting the Maldives to achieve sustainable social and economic development…
According to reports, India was the only country invited at the ‘Head of State or Government’ level at the Presidential Oath ceremony and Indian PM Modi was the first leader that Solih met after becoming President.
Presidential polls were held in The Maldives on September 23, 2018. The Parliamentary leader of the Opposition from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) party since 2011, Solih secured 58.38 per cent of the votes while his nearest rival candidate and then-incumbent President Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) secured 41.62 per cent. According to reports, the MDP entered into a coalition with Jumhooree Party (JP), Adhaalath Party (AP) and the Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM) for the 2018 Presidential election.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed decided to relinquish MDP’s Presidential ticket citing concerns that the main opposition party would be left without a candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections in September 2018. The Elections Commission had, on May 22, threatened to dissolve the Maldivian Democratic Party if its presidential primary was conducted with former president Mohamed Nasheed as a candidate. With the withdrawal of Nasheed’s candidature MDP, on June 30, 2018, declared Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as its alternative candidate for the Presidential elections.
India and Maldives enjoyed a very strong bond during the tenure of Maldives’ first democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, between 2008 and 2012. MoUs for a range of power projects were signed in 2009. In December 2010, the Government of India announced a new Line of Credit (LOC) worth USD 40 million to the Government of Maldives for construction of 500 housing units. An agreement on the LOC was signed between the Indian Export-Import Bank and the Government of Maldives on August 12, 2011. During President Nasheed’s visit to India in December 2008, the Government of India extended a Standby Credit Facility of USD 100 million to Maldives. Again, a new Standby Credit Facility of USD 100 million was extended to Maldives during the November 2011 visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Malé. On November 12, 2011, a Framework Agreement between the Government of India and Maldives was signed, on among other things,
…to cooperate on issues of concern… which include piracy, maritime security, terrorism, organized crime, drugs and human trafficking… through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information, development of effective legal framework and other measures mutually agreed upon. They will intensify their cooperation in the area of training and capacity building of police and security forces.
The bonding has been strong since India was among first countries to recognise Maldives’ independence in 1965.
Nasheed had been forced to resign on February 7, 2012, under the military pressure. He disclosed, on February 8, 2012, “I was forced to resign at gunpoint. There were guns all around me and they told me they wouldn’t hesitate to use them if I didn’t resign.” He claimed the move was planned with the knowledge of the Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, who replaced him. The role of China and Pakistan in the conspiracy for Nasheed’s ouster has been widely confirmed. Ameen Faisal, Nasheed’s Defence Minister disclosed, “I was the defence minister of Maldives. I know how both China and Pakistan are desperately trying to make inroads here. We are India’s natural allies…” Further Nasheed himself had revealed, “The Maldivian National Defence Force was keen to renew its defence agreement with Beijing. Twice they came to me when I was President. I refused.”
As the Pakistan-China stranglehold on Maldives strengthened, the relationship with New Delhi suffered. In a surprise move on November 27, 2012, the Maldives cabinet annulled the agreement made with India’s GMR Group to operate the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) at Hulhule Island near Malé. The USD 500 million contract awarding the airport to the GMR Group for 25 years was signed on June 28, 2010, by the then President Nasheed.
In the November 2013 Presidential elections, Abdulla Yameen defeated Nasheed. Maldives’ drift towards China accelerated. In September 2014, the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) project was handed over to China. China made other huge investments. On December 30, 2015, President Abdulla Yameen and Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce Gao Yan inaugurated the landmark “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” project following the signing of a contract with the CCCC Second Harbour Engineering Company. The bridge was opened for traffic on August 30, 2018. On December 8, 2017, Maldives entered into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China. It was Maldives’ first such treaty with any country. Maldives became only the second South Asian country after Pakistan to sign an FTA with China. According to reports, China has already invested USD 1.5 billion in the Maldives.
The Yameen Government also sought to improve ties with Pakistan. Yameen visited Pakistan in May 2015, the first such visit by a Maldives President in eleven years. Yameen declared,
Time and time again, Pakistan has proven itself to be a loyal friend to the Maldives. I foresee ties being elevated to a higher plane with the conclusion of this State visit. I look forward to a long-lasting partnership that will not only strengthen existing ties but also open up new areas for cooperation and provide mutual benefits to the Maldives and Pakistan.
It is significant that President Nasheed had explicitly blamed Pakistan for emerging terrorism in the Malidives.
Nevertheless, relations with Pakistan improved further under Yameen. Most recently, during Pakistan’s Military chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to Maldives in March 2018 the two sides “discussed about supporting the Maldives with military training, medical aid and jointly patrolling the Maldivian Exclusive Economic Zones.” In July 2018, the head of the Maldives State Electricity Company (STELCO) visited Pakistan and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for “cooperation in institution-building activities” in the Maldives. Reacting to the development, an Indian official had argued,
Given its precarious financial situation, Pakistan cannot do much to help the Maldives. But President Yameen is trying his best to reduce Indian footprint and bring in elements hostile to India to undermine Indian influence in the Maldives.
Currently, the Maldives economic situation is in dire straits. According to the South Asia Country Brief report on the Maldives prepared by The World Bank in April 2018, the current account deficit widened sharply from 3.2 percent in 2004 to an estimated 21.4 percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] in 2017 due to the rise in investment related-imports. As the Maldives’ economy is based on tourism and fisheries—the complex political situation, weak government institutions, high fiscal deficit and public debt, had an adverse impact on the Maldives. The World Bank report further stated that the vulnerability of the overall debt portfolio, with indebtedness levels at over 60 percent of GDP, is heightened by the short maturity of domestic debt and low reserve coverage. The large volume of external loans and guarantees on non-concessional terms to finance infrastructure projects represent significant risks.
Not surprisingly, Maldives has requested the Indian government for “generous aid” in order to manage the State budget for the coming year. MoFA Abdulla Shahid in an interview on November 25, 2018, had said,
We have an immediate budgetary crisis. We need USD 250-350 million in order to handle the difficult budgetary situation we’re in. We’re left in a situation where the country is facing real hardship. When I meet my counterpart tomorrow, I’m going to share this information. This information was shared with PM Modi immediately after the oath taking ceremony by President Solih. We’re hoping that we will once again be able to get the generous assistance of the India Government.
November 27, 2018, reports quoted Indian government sources as saying, “India will give immediate assistance of USD 25 million to the Maldives [for budgetary stability] and is ready to deliver a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to the Maldives. Other aspects of assistance are being worked out.”
Conspicuously, a strong and stable Maldives is essential for India’s security as reports in past had clearly demonstrated that Maldives had been used for anti-India activities. Some Maldivians who spent time in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region had been sent to carry out attacks in India. At least two Maldivian nationals are known to have died fighting in Kashmir in early 2007. The 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks also had a Maldivian connection, as conceded by former President Nasheed. In an interview published on October 25, 2009, Nasheed had categorically stated,
I believe that the identity of all the dead terrorists in the Mumbai attacks has not been broken down into nationalities. I feel there is a Maldivian connection to the Mumbai attacks… Any terrorist attack through the underbelly of India, that is peninsular India, would have to go through Maldivian waters. We will be the first to see what is happening. For example, if we had this equipment, we would have been much more vigilant about what was going to happen in the Mumbai attacks… that is why it is essential to safeguard Maldives’ territorial waters and defend our coastline.
Moreover, radicalisation within Maldivian society has been on the rise. Former President Mohamed Nasheed in an interview published on February 25, 2018, had thus warned,
The Maldives is threatened by a religious extremist take over. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is now a parallel state in the Maldives. A state within the state. A network of religious radicals that have infiltrated strategic institutions, the government, and the street gangs. They are ready to overrun the country and impose a radical version of religion upon the Maldivians and tourists alike. President Yameen [Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom] works with this ‘deep state’, but he cannot control it.
Indeed, Andreas Johansson, a senior political scientist attached to Lund University in Sweden, noted in May 2018,
Among the countries that produce recruits to the so-called Islamic State, the Maldives makes one of the highest per capita contributions. There are estimated to be more than 200 Maldivians fighting for IS in Iraq and Syria.
Further, in 2008, Maldives national Ali Assham was deported from Sri Lanka to the Maldives. Ali Assham was allegedly involved with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) network that had attacked the Indian Institute of Science (IIS) in Bengaluru in 2005. Despite Indian demands, he was never prosecuted and now lives in Malé. In 2009, India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) had issued a warning that the next big attack on Indian soil could be launched from the Maldives and that this threat necessitated the establishment of a robust coastal security apparatus. The IB had also cautioned that terrorist groups like LeT were trying to infiltrate India’s porous coastline.
The Maldives’ geo-strategic location makes it vulnerable to states and forces that have been relentless in their effort to destabilise India, exploiting the archipelago nation’s precarious socio-political conditions. It is imperative for New Delhi, therefore, to support Malé in this hour of crisis.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management