The New Sea Hostilities in the Indo- Pacific with Reference of Indo- Maldivian Ties
India and Maldives have enjoyed great historical and cultural ties beyond bilateral friendship and strategic cooperation. Their relation acquires a multi-dimensional aspect. India was among the first to recognise the Maldives after its independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with the country. Their foreign relations established roots when India established its mission at the level of CDA in 1972 and resident High Commissioner in 1980. The Maldives opened a full-fledged High Commission in New Delhi in November 2004, at that time one of its only four diplomatic missions worldwide. Both the neighbours have made it a point to enhance their political and bilateral relations by regular contacts at the highest levels. The Maldives is of great geo-strategic importance to India and India has at any and every point stood by the island nation. In the current geopolitical scenario where power structures are altering and each nation strives to maintain its sovereignty in the international order, it becomes of utmost importance for India to gear its foreign policy towards enhancing its relations with immediate neighbour countries and other nations so as to get a strong back. The present situation is the one where power hostilities have shifted more towards the sea and so any decision that India takes has to give precedence to this. It is said that the Maldives is a Toll Gate in the Indian Ocean. Located at the southern and northern parts of this Island chain lies the two important sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) critical for maritime trade flow. India’s position in the Indian Ocean is contingent upon its ties with its neighbouring countries and hinges upon the growing Chinese influence.
It is important to note here that considering international issues Maldives had consistently supported India in multilateral fora, such as the UN, the Commonwealth, the NAM and the SAARC. The Maldives also co-sponsored the G-4 draft resolutions on UN reforms. India backed Maldives candidature for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for the term 2019-20. Both the countries recognise the value of their ties and India has always offered bilateral assistance in its island nation’s developing process.
Recently, the appointment of the new United Nations general assembly president Abdulla Shahid from the Maldives who is also the foreign minister under the incumbent, pro- India Solih government is a win-win situation for India- Maldives bilateral ties. India vehemently seconded the nomination of Maldivian candidature for UNGA presidential elections keeping in mind the strategic importance of Indo- Maldivian ties. This will accrue out mutual benefits both domestically as well as in the multilateral fora. This further stems from the fact of the internal political crisis in Maldives. The unrest in the archipelago both strategic. China lies in the thick of it. It is crucial to see the political unrest in the Maldives from a geo-strategic perspective as it involves the island nation’s shift in foreign policy approach. During the Yameen government years, Maldives foreign policy became pro- Chinese giving strategic importance to Beijing over India. China has been able to enter the Maldivian island through tacit, gaining economic control and now threatens to permanently alter the balance of power in South Asia by co-opting the island nation into its aggressive maritime expansion strategy. Its long-term strategic objectives in Maldivian thrust involve laying a ‘string of pearls around India by acquiring naval bases, exercising hegemonic control over key shipping lanes stretching from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, thus, significantly establishing its global military might.
The incumbent Solih government accuses the Yameen government of instituting economic policies that might make the Maldives vulnerable to Chinese interests at a global level. It vehemently reiterates its pro- India and India- first policy. However, this does not mean that the Solih government is completely against China, but what it manifests are that it is wary of Chinese actions and eyes for a confident partner in India. Acquiring an imminent stake in the international fora for the Maldives, as the president of UNGA, India is likely to benefit more as the incumbent Maldivian government commits itself to democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, multilateralism etc., all Indian enshrines values. This will allow India to take up these issues in the international forum and hold accountable any country which violates these, for that matter- China. The appointment of India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador K Nagaraj Naidu as the Chef de Cabinet to Maldives’ foreign minister Abdulla Shahid’s presidency at UNGA further reiterates the strong possibility of India’s take in the world affairs at the behest of its positive relations with Maldives. It might further help India to offer a counterbalance to Chinese hegemonic interests in the Indian Ocean by using the Maldives and other countries as its pawn.
Though there has been a recent spur in – India sentiments in the Maldives under the ‘India Out’ campaign largely against India’s massive developmental funding for creating infrastructure and incumbent president Solih’s government retaining two Indian gifted helicopters and their operational military personnel. Focussing on a larger side still showcases an optimistic scenario. With India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy,’ India has always been at the behest of the Maldives in every sphere, be it economic, defence and security, aid for recovery from natural calamities and the recent covid aid and vaccine drive. Acknowledging India’s crucial partnership, Maldives has given India respite in ‘strategic comforts of the ‘India first’ policy of the Solih government. 
Further, delving deeper into the current geopolitical setting and adopting a holistic view with countries grappling to recover from the despoiling effects of the covid-19 pandemic amid anti-China sentiment purely different scenario surfaces.
Maldivian economy largely consisting of tourism and industry is highly dependent upon the stability of the Indian Ocean with the larger strategic interests in the Indian Ocean contingent upon its security, Maldives foreign policy calls for a multilateral regional approach to ensuring security in the Indian Ocean region that is collaborative, rules-based and inclusive. What we need to understand here is that with Chinese belligerence in the South China sea and growing influence in the Indian Ocean and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue an informal grouping of like-minded democracy in the region comprising Australia, Japan, India, and the USA, to counter the rise of China specifically in the indo-pacific region, Maldivian foreign policy approach implicitly becomes more towards being pro- Quad. It can also be gauged from the fact of its welcoming of Quad dialogue stating that it is imperative to bring stability in the Indian Ocean.
What this underlines are two possibilities.
- Will the Maldives explicitly join the Quad countries being aware of its geographical location, interests in the Indian Ocean and staunchly back the anti-China aggression?
- Or will adopt a balancing mechanism in its other bilateral relations and maintain its ties with China?
The first possibility stems from Maldives growing relations with the USA, Japan and already well-established ties with India. It’s signing of the USA’s framework agreement for defence cooperation framework to strengthen defence and security cooperation between the two countries and acceptance of the Japanese grant of $ 7.6 million to be extended to the Maldives Coast Guard and Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre, delineates the rising defence and security importance of the developed nations. With elements of Al-Qaeda and ISI present in its land, its take on security aspects further rises. And if Maldives furthers its ties with the USA, it is possible that the USA dictates terms and strategically control Maldivian foreign policy eyeing its key dependence on the US as it did in the case of India and Iran. It might then become a US pawn against China. The like-mindedness and growing ties between the USA and India amid excellent bilateralism between India and Maldives further highlight the greater possibility of the Maldives supporting Quad under its pro – India sentiment.
Talking about its balancing mechanism and the China perspective, Maldives is under a potential debt of $ 3.5 billion Chinese investment made during the tenure of the Yameen government. Through its Belt and Road initiative, China was successfully able to turn the Maldives as it’s another indebted country. The Sinamale Bridge – or the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge that funded by China-led this tiny, tourism-dependent nation at the hands of China. The bridge was one of several major projects built under Abdullah Yameen, a pro-China president elected in 2013 as a part of his economic policy. He wanted to kick-start the economy and borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from China to do so.
Mr. Nasheed questioned, ‘Can these assets produce enough revenue to pay back the debt? The business plan of none of these projects has any indication to suggest that it will be able to pay back the loan.”
He argues the cost of projects was inflated and the debt on paper is far greater than the money actually received – which he says was only $1.1bn, although he hasn’t released documents to back up his sums.
Such a whopping debt is beyond its repayment capacity and it looks at India as its saviour considering the age-old and special Indo- Maldivian ties. What this underscores is that the Maldives has to be wary of Chinese actions and repay its debt at the earliest to avoid any significant losses to China as exemplified in the case of Sri‘s Hambantota Port which was annexed by China after it debt-trapped Colombo. It is well known that India has its key strategic interests in the Indian Ocean and works towards cementing its position in the Indian Ocean region. Be it Quad or India- Sri Lanka- Maldives triangular cooperation, the principle behind the collaboration is the same that is, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.  The nature of bilateral political relations in the Indian Ocean region has an impact on the quality of sub-regional engagements. Subregional diplomacy has further gained traction in India’s foreign policy. The NSA- level talks are a manifestation of India’s sub-regional intent, highlighting the importance of both Sri Lanka and the Maldives as critical maritime neighbours to India in the Indian Ocean region with continuous efforts by both India and China to establish strong ties with Colombo and Male.
Referring to the recent Maldivian statement with regards to collaboration in the Indian Ocean region, it agreed to strengthen maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean region through coordinated patrol and aerial surveillance. Thus, to deepen its ties with the Maldives amid an anti- India clout, the pivotal focus of India should be on training the Navy is of the Indian Ocean region. Aerial surveillance also provides India with a better scope to improve its defence capacity as it is a relatively new area for India to further build upon. New Delhi should understand that any small country like the Maldives is prone to Chinese enticement through massive Chinese funds offered amid the national rhetoric to develop the country’s economy, crucial to maintaining its sovereignty in the current world order. India needs to beware of the Chinese card and further up its bilateral expenditure to acquire a pertinent stake in Maldivian foreign policy. This will further benefit India at the United Nations General Assembly to set a base for a new international order in the post- covid scenario. To assert its command in the Indian Ocean and to prevent any authoritative violation by China (the case in December 2019 when Chinese vessels violated India’s exclusive economic zone by entering into it, citing the political instability in the Maldives, thus, acquiring a false mandate.), India must increase its expenditure on defence and build its naval and aerial capabilities.  To have a game in the Southeastern economy, India further needs to expand its defence and security cooperation with its immediate neighbours like the Maldives and Sri Lanka situated in the Indian Ocean.
In the post-pandemic world when ‘sea politics’ has taken the cynosure and major Indian interests lie in the Indian Ocean and indo-pacific, anything that its neighbour countries do will determine its position in contemporary geopolitics. Hence it should greatly implement its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy while being open to collaboration with the power economies like the USA which is also the world’s sole superpower at present and the only country capable to counter rising China. Also, any significant collaboration with the USA should not hinder its ties with Russia as Moscow is its biggest partner in defence and security. Thus there has to be a significant shift in Indian foreign policy but with the tactic. Looking at the changing power dynamics midst rising China tension, India has to align with at least one bloc and cannot reiterate its non-alignment policy that it followed during the 90s cold war. Though it is crucial for India even now to balance its relations with the USA and Russia as both nations are significant for their economic and defence capabilities, but to assert itself and counter China, it still has to explicitly align with more powerful countries with similar interests.
Research Intern at CPRGIndia