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HomeDiplomacyHow Modi plans to win Maldives back from China's embrace

How Modi plans to win Maldives back from China’s embrace

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Modi government has lined up generous aid and a high-level visit to Male by the PM as it looks for course correction in ties with the island nation.

New Delhi: India and the Maldives will begin the process of reviving their traditional friendship when Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds talks Monday with newly-elected President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

New Delhi, top sources in the government told ThePrint, has lined up a series of initiatives to win Male back into its fold. These include a generous assistance package for the Indian Ocean nation and a high-level visit to Male by Modi, they said.

The new engagement with Male is critical for New Delhi as it has seen its popularity and support among its neighbours dwindling in recent years.

It will be a shot in the arm for India, the sources said, if Solih reasserts and reaffirms Maldives’ faith in the ‘India-First’ policy, something which Solih’s predecessor President Abdulla Yameen shunned in order to embrace China.

“We expect this to be a visit where the friendship between both the countries will be revived,” said a top Indian official. “We expect this visit to be one where India will be able to pick up from where it left in building ties, both strategic and economic, and take it to the next level.”

This will be Solih’s maiden official visit to India and he is expected to receive a red-carpet welcome and the same treatment that is meted out to close neighbours such as Bangladesh, sources said.

Also read: Maldives set to pull out of free trade pact with China as it moves closer to India

Mood upbeat in Male

The mood in Maldives also seems to be upbeat, with elections bringing hope that ties with India will be mended.

Under President Yameen, the island nation overtly veered towards China. There came a point when India was almost on the verge of effecting a military intervention in Maldives to counter the Chinese threat under Yameen’s influence.

According to official sources in the Maldivian government, Solih’s visit is expected to restore “trust and good faith” in the bilateral relations.

“Maldives recognises India as an important bilateral development partner for the Maldives. The visit will contribute towards enhancing cultural and commercial ties between the two countries,” an official of the Maldives government said. “Maldives seeks not only development assistance but also wants to attract investment partnerships from India.”

Maldives, it appears, has also committed to India, when Prime Minister Modi visited the country for Solih’s swearing-in ceremony, that it will “not play one country against another”, in effect suggesting that the island nation will work out some equilibrium in its foreign policy to manage India as well as China.

“India should have no worries about Maldives’ relations with China. Maldives will pursue friendly relations with both in the spirit of mutual interest, and cognisant of each other’s concerns,” the Male official said. “Maldives reiterates commitment to maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean.”

Also read: New govt of Maldives likely to keep 2 Indian choppers previous president didn’t want

The road ahead

The road to normalising the relationship, however, isn’t an easy one. For one, there are a number of stalled Indian projects in the island nation.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is believed to have requested her Maldivian counterpart Abdullah Shahid, who was in Delhi last month to do the groundwork for Solih’s visit, to allow Indian firms resume their stuck projects in that country.

India has undertaken a number of infrastructure projects in Maldives but none of them are up to speed, mostly owing to the Chinese onslaught as well as what some see as the Indian government’s lackadaisical approach.

Under Yameen, a number of Indian initiatives such as a training academy for Maldives defence personnel and creation of a special economic zone suffered due to his policy of appeasing the Chinese. Yameen had also cancelled the airport construction and handed it over to the Chinese.

“As for the controversy about mega development projects financed through Chinese loans, the new leadership claims that these projects — the upgradation of Male airport, the Friendship Bridge connecting Male with Hulhule (the island where the airport is located) and mass housing on reclaimed land — have put the nation’s finances in a precarious position, and that they were undertaken for political gains,” said Rajiv Bhatia of the Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank Gateway House.

“The new government is yet to discover the size of the total debt, much less decide what it can do about it.”

The Solih government also has a long wish-list of demands that it wants from India. This includes soft loans, credit lines and purchase of defence equipment from India at a reasonable price. India has apparently also agreed to offer a grant of $1 billion to Maldives to repay its debt to China that was incurred during Yameen’s era.

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