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Insights into Editorial: Maldives, China ink key deals

 

Context:

Maldives and China signed key bilateral agreements during Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit, on developing and maintaining infrastructure in the Indian Ocean archipelago, besides agreeing on a visa-free travel arrangement for Maldivians intending to travel to China.

Maldivian Foreign Minister and his Chinese counterpart unveiled a special official logo to mark 50 years of diplomatic relations between the countries.

Describing China as “one of the most important development partners” of the Maldives, Mr. Shahid said that China “has continued to contribute to the socio-economic development” of the Maldives.

The Foreign Ministers discussed “strengthening the many areas of cooperation” during official talks.

 

Importance of Maldives: Maldives, a Toll Gate in Indian Ocean:

  1. Located at the southern and northern parts of this island chain lies the two important sea lanes of communication (SLOCs).
  2. These SLOCs are critical for maritime trade flow between the Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Hormuz in West Asia and the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia.
  3. Nearly 50% of India’s external trade and 80% of its energy imports transit these SLOCs in the Arabian Sea.
  4. Besides, Maldives is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC).

 

India and Maldives:

India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links steeped in antiquity and enjoy close, cordial and multi-dimensional relations.

India was among the first to recognise the Maldives after its independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with the country.

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.

 

China Maldives recent agreements:

  1. A statement issued by the Maldivian Foreign Ministry said the visa-waiver agreement would allow Maldivians to travel to China on 30-day visa free basis once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
  2. The two governments signed an agreement of ‘Economic and Technical Cooperation’ on grant aid, focusing on social, livelihood, and infrastructure projects.
  3. Further, the Government of Maldives signed a ‘Letter of Exchange’ on a ‘Feasibility Study of Management and Maintenance of China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’, for Chinese assistance in maintaining the 1.4-km bridge connecting capital Male with the island of Hulhumale.
  4. It was built with $ 200 million Chinese assistance during the term of former President Abdulla Yameen, whose government was close to Beijing.
  5. The bridge is considered China’s flagship project in the Maldives. Male owes Beijing about $1.4 billion from past loans, which President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s government has sought to “restructure”.
  6. China also agreed to back a sea-water desalination project and cooperate in the health sector.
  7. Chinese foreign minister visit would be one of “great significance to the future development of our bilateral relations”.

 

At same time of ‘India Out’ campaign in Maldives:

Chinese foreign minister visit also coincides with a growing ‘India Out’ campaign among sections within the Maldives that oppose “Indian military presence” in the country.

The government has denied the allegation. The ‘India Out’ campaign has more recently intensified, with the backing of President Yameen, whose conviction in a money laundering case was recently overturned by the Supreme Court.

 

India-Maldives Co-operation:

  1. In accordance with the “Neighbourhood First Policy” of the government, India remains a committed development partner for a stable, prosperous and peaceful Maldives.
  2. Recent India-Maldives defense cooperation will enhance India’s capability to monitor Chinese maritime and naval movements along vital sea lanes of communication that run alongside the Maldives.
  3. Tourism is the mainstay of Maldivian economy. The country is now a major tourist destination for some Indians and a job destination for others.
  4. The 2004 tsunami and the drinking water crisis in Male a decade later were other occasions when India rushed assistance.
  5. The Maldives has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Covid-19 assistance and vaccines delivered by India among India’s all of neighboring countries.
  6. Maldivian students attend educational institutions in India and patients fly here for superspeciality healthcare, aided by a liberal visa-free regime extended by India.
  7. However, India’s major concern has been the impact of political instability in the neighbourhood on its security and development.
  8. The February 2015 arrest of Maldives’ opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed on terrorism charges and the consequent political crisis have posed a real diplomatic test for India’s neighbourhood policy.

 

What India can learn from China’s evolving foreign policy?

India, which joined hands with China in the 1990s (despite the debacle of the 1950s), to promote a “multipolar” world, now finds itself squeezed by Chinese power on multiple fronts — from the Great Himalayas to the Indian Ocean and from regional to international institutions.

China did not let internationalism come in the way of its national ambition. For any nation, large or small, internationalism cannot be an end in itself; it is a critical instrument in strengthening national unity, security, and prosperity.

There is much that India can learn from China on building flexible global coalitions, adapting quickly to changing internal needs and external circumstances.

 

Concerns from China:

China’s strategic footprint in India’s neighbourhood has increased. The Maldives has emerged as an important ‘pearl’ in China’s “String of Pearls” construct in South Asia.

Given the uncertain dynamics of Sino-Indian relation, China’s strategic presence in the Maldives remains a concern. Also, the Maldives have started using the China card to bargain with India.

 

Conclusion:

The Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit will be watched closely by New Delhi, which has maintained frequent, high-level contact with the present Maldives government that openly pursues an ‘India First’ foreign policy.

Following regime change in Male in 2018, India committed $ 1.4 billion to development in the island nation that is home to about 5.5 lakh people.