Maldives seeks to pacify India after signing FTA with China, may invite high-level delegation for bilateral talks

The Maldives, in an attempt to soothe frayed nerves in New Delhi, has reached out to the Indian government and asked about the possibility of hosting a high-level bilateral visit. A report in The Times of India said the modalities of the talks are still being worked out, but the visit is expected to take place early next month.

Such bilateral talks, in case the move does materialise, would come at an opportune time for New Delhi, just days after it suspended three members of a local body for meeting Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra. That had come soon after Male signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, a series of developments that had worried India.

 Maldives seeks to pacify India after signing FTA with China, may invite high-level delegation for bilateral talks

File image of Narendra Modi with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

Furthermore, a pro-government newspaper had described Narendra Modi as "anti-Muslim", and said India was an "enemy nation", the Times of India report said. President Abdulla Yameen has now denied that the editorial reflected his government's position in any way and called India the country's "closest friend" and ally.

After the three local Opposition party councillors were suspended for meeting Indian envoy Mishra, New Delhi was reportedly keeping a close watch on the developments in Male. Indian diplomats had reached out to the local authorities to understand the rationale. "We are in touch with the government authorities on this issue," The Indian Express had quoted a source as saying.

Referring to the Maldives-China free trade agreement, India had said on 14 December that it expected the Indian Ocean archipelago nation to be "sensitive" to New Delhi's concerns.

Stating that India attached the highest importance to its relations with Maldives, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said the two countries have "strong historical and civilisational linkages, and also at the people-to-people level". "We are also committed to support democracy, development and stability in Maldives. It is our expectation that as a close and friendly neighbour, Maldives will be sensitive to our concerns in keeping with its India first policy," The Indian Express report had quoted him as addressing a media briefing.

These concerns would appear to be justified, especially since Maldives has signed 12 agreements with China, including a pact to jointly promote the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, The Times of India said in a separate report. The agreements with the Maldives are part of Beijing's continuing efforts to persuade South Asian countries to adopt the OBOR programme, and hand over infrastructure construction projects to Chinese companies, the report added. The Maldives has also reportedly allowed three Chinese warships to dock in Male.

India has also been apprehensive about reports that Beijing could establish a military base in the Maldives. However, both China and Male have refuted these reports and said New Delhi's fears were groundless. The Hindu quoted Maldivian vice-president Ahmed Adeeb as saying, "We don't want to give any of our neighbours, including India, any cause for concern. We don't want to be in a position when we become a threat to our neighbours."

Beijing too refuted these fears. People’s Daily, the official newspaper, ran a report which quoted a senior military officer as saying that China did not own any military base abroad, nor did it seek military expansion.

If Modi does end up visiting Maldives, it would be the prime minister's first visit to the neighbouring country. A PTI report had stated that the Maldives "voiced its hurt" at Modi not visiting it during his trip to the region.

"We had extensive discussions with Indian side for a possible visit by Modi, but we were told that the environment was not conducive for his visit," said Fathimath Inaya, deputy minister in Maldivian foreign ministry. "We are hurt that the prime minister could not visit this time."

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2017 12:51:41 IST