The Maldives, a tropical paradise that is a group of 26 chain atolls (coral islands) in the West Indian Ocean, is hardly a 90-minute flight from Kochi. Featured in numerous 'top travel destinations' lists, bestowed with stunning natural beauty, turquoise waters, pristine beaches, and colourful coral reefs, the island offers luxurious resorts with world-class amenities and services, delicious sea-food serving restaurants as well as exceptional diving and snorkelling opportunities.
With 1.5 million tourists (in 2022) flocking into the island nation, Indians are the biggest chunk of tourist arrivals into the country. Resorts and beaches here are often sought after by Bollywood stars like Alia Bhatt, Saif Ali Khan, Urvashi Rautela and Tiger Shroff for their short breaks to unwind and recharge. YouTube and Instagram influencers, looking for new and exotic locations have followed the trend too.
Historically, India and the Maldives have close ties owing to ethnolinguistic, cultural, religious and trade ties which have taken the shape of a friendly and multi-dimensional relationship. India was the first among the others to recognise the Maldives after its independence from the British in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations. The Maldives establishing its High Commission in New Delhi in November 2004 was one of its only four missions globally.
However, to ensure the smooth functioning of relations much goes on behind the curtain at multiple levels. Both countries closely work on addressing various conventional domains, along with contemporary pressing issues such as navigation disruptions, disasters, cross-border terrorism, piracy, organized crime, narcotic drugs, and human trafficking.
Strategic importance of the island nation
Its location in the West Indian Ocean falls on one of the busiest Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC), connecting the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca. A substantial volume of natural oil and gas exports from West Asia towards South-East and East Asia and finished products exports travel vice versa pass close to the atolls. The passage of over 80% of China's fossil fuel imports passing through this route makes it more important.
Where are both countries cooperating?
Defence and Security
A friendly stable regime in the Maldives is important for India to counter the Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The increasing presence of the Chinese Navy and infrastructure projects at Duqm, Doraleh, Gwadar, Hambantota, Payra, Chittagong, Kyaukpyu, and Seychelles under Beijing's ‘Belt and Road’ initiative has made India ramp up its cooperation with the littoral states under the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) doctrine for maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
In 1988, the Indian military carried out 'Operation Cactus to thwart a coup d’état attempt by a group of Maldivians led by businessman Abdullah Luthufi.
In 2016, India and Maldives signed a defence cooperation agreement, which aims to enhance cooperation in areas such as maritime security, counter-terrorism, and defence industry cooperation.
Commodore (Retd.) Anil Jai Singh, Vice President, of the Indian Maritime Foundation, in a panel discussion at the RajyaSabha TV, stated India's 'Neighbourhood First Policy' and Maldive's 'India-First Policy' complement each other very well.
Installation of Coastal Surveillance Radar System in 2021, to enhance maritime security and assist in search and rescue operations.
To enhance interoperability and capacity building in order to tackle insurgency, piracy and terrorism in the region, both countries participate in Exercise Ekuverin. This includes training in areas such as special forces operations, diving, and helicopter operations.
Last year India extended a $100 million line of credit to the Maldives for the procurement of defence equipment from India.
In the recent visit of the Indian Defence Minister to The Maldives, two indigenously-made ships—a fast patrol vessel 'Huravee' and a landing craft assault ship were handed over. He also laid the foundation stone of a coast guard facility in Maldives.
Economy, trade and mobility
In 2021, India became the Maldives' third-largest trading partner. Bilateral trade between the two exceeded $300 million
Scrap metals, engineering and industrial goods, medications, radar equipment, cement, and agricultural produce like spices, fruits, vegetables, poultry, etc are just a few of the items that India sells to the Maldives.
In 2021, A grant of $ 50 million and a bilateral USD Currency Swap Agreement between RBI and Maldives Monetary Authority were signed in 2019.
To negate the slowdown after the lockdown was lifted, India extended a $100 million grant and a line of credit of $400 million under the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP). The GMCP is a 6.74 km-long bridge connecting Male and the islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi using renewable energy.
It is set to be India's biggest project in the Maldives and also the nation's biggest infrastructure project, bigger than the Sinamale Bridge built with Chinese money.
Direct ferry services between the two countries have been introduced to promote bilateral trade.
Development and capacity building
India's NDRF AND Maldive's MNDF regularly cooperate in the domains of Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief, Search & Rescue, Pollution Control, Fire and Rescue Service
Maldives Institute of Technical Education in 1992, India‐Maldives Faculty of Hospitality & Tourism Studies in 2014 and Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in 1995 were built using Indian assistance.
National Centre for Police and Law Enforcement (NCPLE) is too. It is important to note that police and security forces from The Maldives frequently visit India's Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy, Hyderabad for training, the same place where the IPS are trained.
India is also assisting The Maldives with technologies to enhance agricultural production and clean drinking water.
India was the first responder to provide relief and aid to the Maldives after the tsunami waves hit the vulnerable island nation. Indian Air Force, Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard, and Indian Air Force carried out evacuation efforts and ferried relief material from India.
Medical tourism remains India's strength providing world-class facilities at low cost. Kerala attracts a big share of Maldivians looking for treatment in India, claimed the Maldives ambassador Aishath Mohammed Didi in 2019.
As India considers the IOR as its strategic backyard, growing Chinese influence and financial dominance in the region remain a matter of concern for India. Hence, partnering with the Maldives in multiple facets is a welcome policy effort. Through these efforts, India intends to put right the damages done by Former President Abdulla Yameen and his government who had close links with Beijing and the "India Out campaign" backed by them.
Along with the steps undertaken, India should fiercely promote soft power diplomacy by banking on socio-cultural engagements through appeal and attraction, as opposed to the Chinese 'carrot and stick diplomacy'.