New Delhi: Maldives now understands that due to its strategic location on the Indian Ocean it has a “responsibility to maintain peace and security” of the region, said Sunjay Sudhir, High Commissioner of India to Maldives.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, Sudhir said this realisation is now deeply embedded in the foreign policy of Maldives as chalked out under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who came to power in November 2018, after the previous Abdulla Yameen regime was ousted.
“The Solih government realises that being at the location where they are, they have a clear responsibility in maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean. This is a realisation which was not there in the previous dispensation,” Sudhir told ThePrint.
Thus, the High Commissioner said, India is putting its full support behind Maldives on this aspect.
“India being a net provider of security, it is also our responsibility to maintain peace and security in the region. So these two are complementary approaches and we are working on that,” he said.
Ties between New Delhi and Malé had plummeted significantly during Yameen’s regime. Under his government, Maldives gathered Chinese debt to the tune of $2 billion.
President Solih’s reaffirmation of the ‘India First’ policy had reset the ties between both the countries, bringing them closer once again. However, New Delhi has been quite apprehensive of Beijing’s growing influence in the Maldives.
“The kind of economic situation in which Yameen had left Maldives was very dire. There were debts, there were sovereign guarantees, nobody knew what was the figure (of that debt), the private sector had taken loans from Chinese banks and the government had given a guarantee, which is not a norm. It was a very messed up situation so the economy needed a resuscitation so we announced an economic package for them,” he said.
India had offered Maldives an economic recovery package of $1.4 billion during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the island nation in December 2018. Subsequently, India also announced line of credit and currency swap deals to Maldives.
Male’s commitment to ‘India First’ policy vis-à-vis China
According to the Indian envoy, recognising the geostrategic significance of Maldives in the Indian Ocean, it is key that Malé treats India as the “first among equals” when it comes to China.
“When Solih came to power in November 2018, he categorically said India First policy is my foreign policy. We, of course, have our neighbourhood first policy. The twain had to meet. With Maldives we have been able to do that because there is determination on both sides and it has happened,” Sudhir said.
He added, “In the previous dispensation of Yameen, there was a very heavy tilt towards China because beijing announced a few BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects.”
“But in the last two-and-a-half years there has not been a single new project announced, there has been no single line of credit announced, no ship visit, no senior ministerial-level visit has happened,” he added.
However, Sudhir also stressed that for a small country like Maldives it is not possible to “shut the door” on China and neither does India want them to do so.
“They don’t want to shut the door (for China). It is nobody’s interest to shut the door. That’s not our idea either. What is meant by India First, good reactions with everybody, but India is the first among equals. It is not an ‘India only’ policy,” he said.
India developing 45 projects in Maldives
Presently, India is engaged in developing 45 infrastructure development projects in Maldives compared to nine by Saudi Arabia, nine by Kuwait, one by The Netherlands, and one each by Pakistan and China, the envoy said.
In August 2020, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had announced India’s decision to support the implementation of Greater Malé Connectivity Project in Maldives through a financial package consisting of a grant of $100 million and a new Line of Credit of $400 million.
This is going to be the largest civilian infrastructure project in Maldives, connecting Malé with three neighbouring islands — Villingili, Gulhifahu (where a port is being built under the Indian Line of Credit) and Thilafushi (which is a new industrial zone) — with the construction of a bridge-and-causeway link spanning 6.7 km.
The mega ‘Greater Malé Connectivity Project’ was first discussed in September 2019, according to the Indian High Commissioner. He said, since then, the project has progressed substantially and in a week’s time, the main commercial contract is expected to be signed.
“So, in less than two years a $500 million project has been awarded, it’s a big thing. Similarly, other projects have also taken off … Our projects are not Malé-centric, it’s across the country,” he said.
India is engaged in building a road project in southern Maldives, water and sanitation project across the country and an airport extension project among others.
‘Defence and counterterrorism efforts are key’
India and Maldives are also engaged in deep defence cooperation as well as in counterterrorism measures. In April 2021, both sides held their first meeting of the Joint Working Group on counterterrorism, countering violent extremism and de-radicalisation.
“The government of Maldives is fully seized of the issue. We continue to remain vigilant on this,” he said.
He also added that after a long hiatus, the trilateral meeting of the National Security Advisors from India, Maldives and Sri Lanka was held in November 2020.
“This hiatus is over. Things have moved and the meeting was held… There is a clear determination that it should be institutionalised. The secretariat has been set up based in Colombo,” he said.
On defence cooperation, he said, India’s approach is “need-driven” in terms of training and cooperation to their armed forces.
In February, Jaishankar visited Mauritius and the Maldives in an effort to boost trade as well as defence ties. Both sides subsequently signed an agreement to “develop, support and maintain” a Coast Guard harbour at Sifvaru.
“We see the defence relationship in a holistic way,” he said, adding that it is key for India to see Maldives supporting the Pacific strategy of the Quad — a strategic arrangement between India, US, Japan and Australia.