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SOURCE: VIDHI BUBNA / FOR MY TAKE / IDRW.ORG.

India’s relation with its neighbouring nations in the last few years has been weak. Even after multiple treaties and projects lined up, most of the South Asian countries and some countries in the East have already started favouring China for cooperation and stability through the medium of trade and agreements.

Maldives however, seems to be that rare country to unequivocally support India, especially with the advent of President Ibrahim M. Solih in 2018 who has since been a close ally of Narendra Modi and under whose presidentship, India has invested a whopping $2 billion, including all loan and grant projects. Solih in the last one and half years has acted on an ‘India First’ policy approach (unlike his predecessor Yameen, who supported China), a diplomatically welcoming and optimistic response to India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.

Of these many projects, the recent, also probably the most sought after is the $500 million ‘Greater Male Connectivity Project’ or GMCP billed as the largest civilian infrastructure project in Maldives ever. India will support the project through a grant of $100 million and a Line of Credit (LoC) of $400 million (a staggering addition to the previous $800 million LoC initiated by India in 2018). It will be a 6.7 kilometers long bridge connecting Male with its three neighbour islands – Villingli (a major tourist attraction), Gulhi Fahu (through its port which is under construction and funded by an Indian LoC) and Thilafushi (industrial zone) with the aim of reducing the economic, commercial and residential load off the capital island city and reviving the overall economy of Maldives.

Apart from GMCP, India has also announced the creation of an ‘air bubble’ between both the countries which will encourage employability, the tourism industry and many other sectors of the economy. Other notable announcements include a cargo ferry service between the two nations and financial assistance to the island nation for fighting the COVID crisis. All these in addition to the continued supply of food items like potatoes, onions, rice, wheat, sugar, et cetera by India ensuring food security to the tiny island nation.

These projects will primarily benefit India in the elimination of Chinese influence from the country, rendering uncertainty in China-Maldives’ relation (a befitting reply to the recent China funded Sinamale Friendship bridge in Maldives) and thus setting an example for India’s wrath in the ever-growing power tussle between India and China. It is far more important now, citing the recent developments and neo-colonial expansion in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) by China, that a strong geo-political strategy be put in place in the region. China that has been working on its Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, which includes the refurbished Maritime Silk Road, encompasses a passage that covers a large chunk of the IOR. Not surprisingly though, it will on its way undermine India’s position in the region trying to weaken its hold on international territorial waters as well as suffocate its maritime trade route, where 95 per cent of India’s trade in volume, takes place. India has since tried to strategically reply back by building Coastal Radar Networks and by building ports (and accessing them) in the countries surrounding the IOR. Other initiatives include naval exercises with Japan, Australia and USA (collectively called a Quad), as well as using India’s soft power of maintaining a friendly behaviour (unlike China who is fierce in its approach). Two things will test its efficacy- time and more importantly, the changing political order of the concerned countries. What is also interesting is that the route of ‘Maritime Silk Road’ has been planned to enter the IOR region via Male, and if India can keep its hold on the archipelago nation (Maldives) through strong bilateral agreements primarily in the form of investments, it can eventually turn out to be a hindrance for China and its BRI initiative.

What’s in it for Maldives? Keeping aside all the aides India has provided historically including helping the island country during the Tsunami, capacity building and skill development projects, and directly providing help in many other situations, the reason for Maldives rooting for India is mostly because India has been a supporter of various projects in Maldives. As Maldives is still hugely indebted to China; India thus seems to be the only big economy to help Maldives in such a financial crisis. Moreover, the growing Climate Change concerns in the country have touted the administration to look forward to clean energy projects, something India has signed off to in the form of MoUs. In its core, Maldives believes that it is better to be a friend of India than a maritime prisoner of China; a healthy trade-off.

Though China has repeatedly denied India’s claim of maritime supremacy being one of the crucial elements of BRI, India in the coming 75th General Assembly of UN, will hope to raise the point nevertheless, reaching out to the international community for a wholesome look at the issue citing the laws of UNCLOS and also making the concerned countries realise about the consequences.

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