Maldives president's visit to India: Investment key to securing New Delhi's interests, govt should open cheque book

A pleasant and fruitful visit is soon in the offing, where government officials can preen at having achieved reasonable success. Maldives president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is due to come calling, and all indications are that he’s to be given the red carpet. After all, it’s not every day that a combination of diplomacy, intelligence work and political leadership is able to deliver the goods in regional relations. The exit of the excitable Yameen, and appointment of the calm, no-nonsense Abu Solih, as he is usually called, is definitely a win for all concerned.

The trouble of course is sustaining it. Remember that Yameen himself had been hailed by  foreign policy analysts for wanting to “repair” India-Maldives relations during his maiden official visit to India in 2014. Yameen’s speech was fulsome in praising India. With the Maldives economy already in crisis — mostly over its rising debt to China —  he needed solid assistance, some of which he seems to have got. The joint statement was generous considering that the Maldivian government had terminated the GMR contract to build the airport only months previously.

File image of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. AP

File image of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. AP

Apart from promising supplies of petroleum to ease its reduce its debt burden and a trade credit of $ 25 million, it also promised capacity building for the Maldivian defence forces and the police,  and in return Maldives seems to have committed itself to “enhance maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean Region through joint patrolling and aerial and maritime surveillance” among other things. Since Maldives has a virtually no navy or air force, it essentially meant that India would do the job, with the objective of keeping a wary eye on all activity on one of the busiest sea lanes in the Oceans, through which Chinese ships, among others must pass to reach waters of the Gulf and beyond.

The present government, while hitting all the right notes in terms of “India first”, is however likely to be more cautious. Foreign Minister Shahid on his first official visit to India, welcomed Indian economic aid and assistance in terms of government, private and foreign investment. However, he  staunchly refuted reports of a possible Indian military base in exchange for $1 billion in aid. In another  interview, he dodged questions of a defence relationship, emphasising that the supply of Dornier aircraft and helicopters were for a purely civil role. The Maldivian foreign minister also continued to present China as a friendly country and one of the “largest economies of the world”. Maldives wants to get the best deal for itself from all concerned, and no one can blame its officials for that.

Meanwhile, there are other areas of cooperation in the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development signed between the two countries in 2011. This includes combating terrorism, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. All are issues that are of concern. Maldives sits squarely on the narcotics route, with Maldivian drug modules busted in Kerala this year. In other cases, Maldivians have been detained in Thailand and Sri Lanka among other countries. As incomes climb, cocaine is of particular concerns, with seizures in South Asia increasing tenfold.

However, Male’s problem is with trafficking in relatively small quantities by runners. With no large port to speak of, it has no part is the large transshipments that go through containers. Maldives has also been named as a “country of concern” in terms of human trafficking by the US, while terrorism is rapidly becoming an issue as the island sees an onslaught from the religious right. Consider that recently some rather beautiful sculptures by a British artist at a Corralarium has to be removed since they were deemed “un-Islamic”. Such incidents occur against the rising tide of extremism that saw some 200 Maldivian nationals fighting for the Islamic State, a worryingly large figure considering its tiny population.  That should be deeply troubling mostly for Male itself. Tourists — income from whom accounts for a a third of Maldivian GDP —  are likely to get spooked, and look elsewhere. Again, this is something the government has to do for itself to protect its own interests.  However a little help from friends and neighbours is helpful, particularly when you are broke.

That seems to be happening already even before President Solih arrives in New Delhi. The United States recently announced a $10 million aid to the archipelago, of which $7 million is for foreign military financing to support “maritime security and secure its territorial waters”. That’s diplospeak to say that Male should be assisted to see who does or does not enter its waters, in a manner consistent with the interests of all concerned including the US. A week earlier, it was Japan’s turn to offer aid of MVR 40 million as aid, in addition to a grants of MVR 43 million for the health sector earlier. The first Japan - Maldivian dialogue was held in June. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s JAI is already rallying, and its now India’s turn.

Reports suggest that a soft loan of $700 million has already been discussed, but actual numbers could be higher. Then there is the issue of the relocation of the Male Commercial harbor, a contract that could be worth millions. That’s where private players will have to be persuaded to come in. That’s not going to be easy. GMR’s ousting still rankles. Male is likely to tighten the screws for generous assistance, assuming that it can play the China card — though unobtrusively — to get what it wants. This is a position that New Delhi needs to carefully evaluate.

Chinese commercial presence is worse for Male itself, as it sinks ever deeper into unsustainable debt. A Chinese military presence is unlikely, given that New Delhi can cut the long logistics umbilical cord at any time of its choosing. Without the China card looming over every decision, Maldives becomes simply a neighbor in distress, who needs assistance from a country that sees itself as a regional power. That’s the bottom line. Regional power and position doesn’t come for free. As Abu Solih comes calling, Delhi and its allied business heads may as well have their collective cheque books ready. It is time to pay up or shut up.

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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2018 09:50:32 IST

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