Why Maldives has much more to gain by keeping India on its side

Maldives is currently floating towards China

PTI01_07_2024_000239A Neighbourhood watch: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Maldives president Mohamed Muizzu | PTI

THE MUIZZU GOVERNMENT in the Maldives seems to be getting into hot water as far as its relationship with India goes. Even before assuming office as president, Mohamed Muizzu was unambiguous about his alignment with China and his disdain for India. The relationship between the Maldives and India has since headed consistently southwards.

The latest in the series of overt contempt for India has been the derogatory comments made by three Maldivian deputy ministers against Prime Minister Narendra Modi after he visited Lakshadweep. To its credit, the Muizzu government promptly distanced itself from the comments and suspended the ministers. This was surprising, so I think there may have been some strong signalling by India.

The mocking ministers may have perceived Modi’s visit as part of an effort to develop Lakshadweep as a tourist destination rivalling the Maldives. Perhaps an insecurity complex kicked in, since development of Lakshadweep would have the potential to dent the tourism economy of the Maldives. While that would be some distance away, if India seriously applies its mind to develop world-class tourism in Lakshadweep, nobody can stop it from doing so, least of all the Maldives. There has been discussion about this in the past as well, but ecological considerations and concerns of the local population have held India back. It must be done soonest as it will transform the lives and economy of the Union territory.

Rewind a few weeks. Ever since Muizzu took up his presidency, there has been a clamour that Indian troops and military detachments leave the Maldives. The Indian military presence there is minimal, restricted to skeleton diplomatic staff, naval Dornier and advanced light helicopter (ALH) detachments, and a support team for the patrol craft gifted to the Maldivian Coast Guard. These can be pulled back very easily.

The Maldives has an exclusive economic zone of 9,23,322 square kilometres, and has neither the capability nor the capacity to monitor these vast sea areas. Hence, it was at the request of the Maldives that these bilateral security measures were adopted. It is also a manifestation of India’s ‘neighbourhood first’policy, which seeks to develop capability and capacity of smaller maritime neighbours to bridge their capability gaps and address their security concerns.

The Maldivian Coast Guard has learnt the ropes primarily from the Indian Navy. Till the time India gifted them a patrol craft, they operated only small inter-island speedboats that had very little capability to detect or intervene in an EEZ violation. Even with the availability of a patrol craft, violations further out to sea went undetected, resulting in blatant violation of the EEZ by poachers and trawlers of extra-regional countries. With joint patrols by the Maldivian Coast Guard and the Indian Navy, such violations started getting detected.

India also helped the Maldives to set up a coastal radar chain. Obviously, entities indulging in illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing did not like to be called out. It is my guess that these entities may have had a role to play in influencing Muizzu and his ilk.

It is no secret that China is deeply entrenched in the Maldives in various ways. The Chinese strategy of assisting small countries with mega projects and extracting long-term leverages is known as much to the Maldives as it is to other recipient nations. If such a system is acceptable to the recipient nations, India should have no problem, in principle.

To give the devil its due, China is known to deliver efficiently on promises and negotiate effectively with political dispensations on mega projects. Maybe India could take a page from the Chinese book as a lesson in efficiency. Trust-building is quite another thing, on which India places a premium. As an independent nation, the Maldives must make its choices; and these choices need not result in a zero-sum game between India and China.

There are three things that the Maldives government, whatever the political dispensation, would do well to recognise. First, the India of today is a different country. It is already the fifth largest economy in the world and on its way to becoming the third largest by the middle of the next decade. Its political, technological and economic heft will increase and create opportunities, not just for itself but also for its neighbours and partners. India’s rich and famous could easily be one of the largest sections of tourists visiting the Maldives and the number of American and European tourists could reduce over time.

Second, India is the most capable country in the region with every kind of facility that is lacking in our smaller neighbouring countries. Nationals from neighbouring countries flock to India for tourism, education, employment, medical care and pilgrimage. India has always been welcoming and open to such foreign nationals, but this open-heartedness must not be seen as a weakness. It takes just a piece of paper to create barriers to availing facilities in India. As mentioned earlier, this new India is quite a changed nation-state. The Maldives must weigh its options carefully.

Third, India is the closest maritime neighbour to the Maldives to its west. Male is an hour and a half away by air from Kochi. The distance by sea is less than 400 nautical miles, which is less than a day’s steaming distance by ships of the Indian Navy. In the case of a natural calamity or any other kind of crisis, India will always be the first responder. Ships, aircraft and people of the Indian armed forces will be the first to come to the aid of Maldivians.

Remember the December 2014 drinking water crisis in Male? It was the Indian Navy that ensured that Male did not run dry, while their distillation plants were being repaired. Should there be an emergency requiring relocation of climate refugees, where will the Maldivians go? And who will accept them?

Much thinking needs to be done before policy decisions are considered in India-Maldives relations. The Maldives has much more to gain by keeping India on its side―and much more to lose by queering the pitch.

The author is a former commander-in-chief of the Eastern Naval Command.