The uneasiness over the India – Maldives relations are unwarranted. The ripples in the Indian ocean are short term and inevitable for the fact that Maldives does have a strategic role to play and India’s foreign policy must align to this new reality. What is this new reality? And, why India does need a massive overhaul in the foreign policy, especially in the context of the ‘closest allies’ as we call them?
A pleasant surprise to the billionth India that Maldives at the heart of Indian Ocean which falls to south-southwest of India consists of the population of little more than 400000 inhabitants. The archipelago of 1,192 coral islands are grouped into 26 natural coral atolls spread across. A nation gifted with the abundance of tropical paradise and relatively unknown until 1970 boosts of tourism as the most dominant industry contributing 33% of the GDP. India was among the first to recognize Maldives after its independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with the country. India is a leading development partner of Maldives and has established many of the leading institutions of Maldives. India and Maldives have consistently supported each other in multilateral fora such as the UN, the Commonwealth, the NAM and the SAARC. Currently, India has provided $100 million Stand-by Credit facility (SCF) to Maldives, including long-term loans and revolving credit for trade.
What caused concerns? First, it was splashed across the media that the movement of the Indian Ambassador to Maldives was restricted by the Home Ministry of the Maldives which issued a government circular. It was later denied by the Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi. He said, “I don’t think this information is correct.”
Second, the three councilors who happened to meet the Indian Ambassador, were suspended. India Ambassador to Maldives, Akhilesh Mishra was touring the islands of Gaafu Alifu Atoll. A day later, President of the Gaafu Alifu Atoll Council, Ahmed Fuaad, tweeted a photograph of a notice issued by the Local Government Authority (LGA), dated December 12, suspending the three-member council – Fuaad, Ahmed Nazmeen and Hussain Adam – for three months.
A day before, on December 11, the Local Government Authority (LGA), which is the prime monitoring agency of local bodies in Maldives, issued a circular stating that since all foreign policy powers are vested in the presidency, any meetings between councilors and foreign diplomats could only take place after the home ministry’s clearance.
Explaining the incident, Maldives’ Ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed elaborated that the LGA had also sent letters to the councils which states that councils do not need Home Ministry’s prior approval when working in coordination with a concerned government Ministry, and minutes of such meetings must be shared with the concerned Ministry and the Home Ministry within 3 days of the meeting. He further stated that the meeting with foreign diplomats and organizations without notifying the concerned state authorities could obstruct and jeopardize the international policies and foreign relations, hence, it is imperative to notify as it the subject matter under the centralized authority.
Third, the signing of the Free Trade Agreement(FTA) with China added the fuel to the fire. This is also Maldives’s first FTA with any country and It was perceived as Maldives drifting away from the circle of the ‘closest allies” under the theoretical categorization of Indian foreign policy officials. After the agreement was signed between China and Maldives, Ministry of External affairs(MEA) said: “we expect the Indian Ocean archipelago nation to be sensitive to New Delhi’s concerns and its stated ‘India First’ policy”.
In the helm of affairs, the Ambassador of Maldives to India, Ahmed Mohamed issued a strong worded statement putting the media frenzy at the center. He tweeted: “It is unfortunate that some disgruntled politicians and self -appointed diplomacy experts have voiced unfounded concerns on the Maldivian-China FTA. In todays’ global economic scenario, FTA is one of the strongest tools of economic diplomacy”. He is consistent on the economic merit of the Agreement that any country-small or big in size- is free to embark on the greater trade facilitation. Ambassador further points out the criticality in the wake of present economic situation in Maldives. The over dependence on the fisheries as the only export commodity and the natural calamities are the double jeopardy for the Maldives. The competitive advantage of Maldives’ only dominant export industry, is heavily eroded by the cheap exports from other parts of Asia. Though EU is still the big market but the signs of distress on the sector is very visible now. It is also the matter of creating an ecosystem of new trading opportunities and alignment of the Maldivian trading community to the new challenges.
In the scheme of Indian foreign policy, Maldives has been looked at from the prism of an overarching framework which enabled India to sustain the momentum. But the very realization that the shape of regional geopolitical landscape is changing fast and to keep the momentum, India first must realize the paradigm shift. The ad hoc outreach based on the historical perspectives will not work. It is not feasible and not working across the island. In this case, FTA is nothing new in making. Over the last two years, there were several ministerial and secretarial meeting held between Maldives and China over the Agreement. It only culminated now. So, why the Indian foreign officials are in the state of frenzy? The China’s clout is inevitable and the in the time global uncertainty, economy strength is what the nations look for. The Chinese outreach to Maldives are filling the chasm that could not be filled with laggards of our established norms.
What is the next? India must not get into the frenzy of losing a trusted and closest ally in the most important and strategic waters of Indian Ocean. Neither, Maldives is willing to do so. What is required a new approach to understand the opportunities and various collaboration and providing consistent support for the growth of archipelago. It is equally imperative to absorb the challenges that Maldives face and vulnerable to the natural calamities as the wrath of global warming is more visible now with the rising sea level, mass disasters in the shape of hurricane and typhoon. Maldives is composed of 99% Ocean and 1% Land and that is the opportunity but under the constant reminder of the inevitability of the rise in sea levels and the bleaching of its coral reefs – threats that made it a poster child for the consequences of climate change.
It is the established cacophony of our foreign policy that requires an overhaul in the wake of new reality. While India moves ahead with the replacing of ‘balancing act, to a ‘leading act’ on the international scene, it demands a robust and comprehensive policies that focus on the entirety of political economy. Maldives does understand the role India has played in the past, and, lauds often. Now, it is for India to play a bigger role, having witnessed the rising tide of Indian Ocean.
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