As India looks to bolster its ties with two key neighbours in the Indian Ocean to counter China’s influence, External Affairs minister S Jaishankar, during his visit to Maldives, signed pacts on health and education besides discussing regional security and maritime safety issues with Foreign minister Abdulla Shahid at the Addu City late on Saturday.
Following the bilateral talks, Jaishankar said: “I return to the Maldives after more than a year and the time in between, despite Covid, has witnessed fast-paced progress in our relationship. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, our cooperation has actually witnessed and withstood the arc and anguish of the pandemic.”
He added that they had wide-ranging discussions on bilateral partnership and also took stock of ongoing projects and initiatives across different sectors. “We looked at socio-economic development, trade and investment, and also tourism,” Jaishankar said.
Calling the development partnership the “central pillar of the relationship”, the Minister said: “It is a very transparent partnership, driven directly by Maldivian needs and priorities. Today, this support ranges upwards of $2.6 billion in terms of grants, concessional loans, budgetary support and capacity building and training assistance.”
After the meeting, Maldives Foreign Minister Shahid said, “You’ve made history, Minister Jaishankar. This is the first time that official talks have been held outside of the Capital city of Male.” He added that “fortifying and building on the long-standing ties is one of the top foreign policy priorities of President Solih’s administration.”
Shahid further said that the Maldives welcomes India’s “Neighbourhood First Policy” under which the island nation has gained immense socio-economic benefits and that they, too, remain committed to their “India First Policy”. “Our relationship has stood the test of time, and is one that will continue to flourish. I thank India for the assistance it has provided throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. We remain grateful that we can always rely on India during times of need. Both our countries have experienced the hardships and tragedies of the pandemic, but we are emerging stronger together.”
Shahid’s words come at a time when the Opposition party in Maldives, led by former President Abdulla Yameen, had spearheaded an anti-India campaign.
With regards to Addu, a city in the southernmost atoll of the Indian Ocean archipelago, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar said that India is supporting projects in different sectors — infrastructure, tourism, fish processing and health. “Work has already commenced on the Addu Roads projects, setting up of 4,000 housing units and drinking water and sanitation schemes,” he added.
Addu is a stronghold of the Maldivian National Party and former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is Speaker of the Majlis — the country’s Parliament. He is also a vocal supporter of closer ties with India.
Talking about their discussions on strategic issues, Jaishankar said: “I think that the threat of transnational crimes, terrorism and drug trafficking is indeed very serious. In this context, I’m very pleased to see that our capacity building, cooperation and training have expanded over years. I think it is beneficial for both of us to strengthen our defence and security.”
He added that the National College of Policing and Law Enforcement, which will be inaugurated on Sunday, is India’s largest grant-funded project in Maldives. “It will help the Maldives Police Service to train its officers and enhance its crime-fighting capacities. We are also signing an MoU for capacity building between the Maldives Police and our National Police Academy,” he said, while adding that on Sunday, they will also be formally handing over the Coastal Radar System which is already operational and is a big step in enhancing maritime security.
Jaishankar informed that the iconic Greater Male Connectivity Project holds the potential of actually transforming the transport landscape of the capital. “It gives me great pleasure in recognising the progress we have made on this project as we have moved from the level of concept to preliminary works in less than two years, that too during Covid. Geo-technical surveys are going on. I hope we can do a ground-breaking ceremony in the coming months,” he added.
Listing the development initiatives, Jaishankar said that the Hanimaadhoo Airport Redevelopment Project, the expansion of facilities of MIFCO, the cricket stadium, and the social housing projects have all seen great momentum in implementation in the past year. “I am pleased to hear that the DPR of the $40 million Sports Line of Credit that was announced in February last year is near completion. Using this, the National Stadium will be renovated and sports infrastructure will be built across Maldives.”
Talking about the strides made in the fields of capacity building and training, the External Affairs Minister said: “I am, of course, delighted to join you in the inauguration of the National Knowledge Network. And, with the signing of the Peering Agreement today, over 1,500 Indian institutes and a host of universities and centres of learning from Singapore, Europe and the United Stated are now connected to Maldives.”
The two countries also signed a pact connecting the Higher Education Network of Maldives and the National Knowledge Network of India, enabling access to digital libraries and networking sources for students and professionals of Maldivian educational institutes. An agreement for reciprocal recognition of Covid vaccination certificates that will help facilitate easier travel between the Maldives and India was also signed.
Jaishankar also spoke about the “steady growth” in the number of tourists visiting the island nation, saying that India may have been the top source of visitors in 2020 and 2021. “And I assure you, we’ll make all efforts to keep that position in the coming year as well. We are also glad that at a time of global uncertainty and volatility, we have been able to consistently keep up supplies of essential commodities to Maldives,” he added.
Applauding both the government and the people for their efforts in the realm of climate change, Jaishankar said that India was ready to share its capabilities with Maldives.
“We are already engaged in the development of water and sanitation facilities on 34 islands through Line of Credit financing. The project, which is one of the largest climate-adaptation measures in the Maldives and is being built at a cost of around $100 million, will help extend basic civic amenities to the islands’ communities,” Jaishankar added.
Reiterating the importance of the good relations between the two countries, the External Affairs minister said: “It is a partnership that delivers for its stakeholders — the citizens of our countries —in both good and bad times. This is a partnership that tackles common challenges of regional development, and addresses disruptions and disasters. It is a partnership that is a force for stability in the region.”
Jaishankar and Maldives’s President Ibrahim Solih will inaugurate a police training academy and a drug rehabilitation centre built using Indian financial assistance at Addu.
The External Affairs Minister arrived in the island nation on Saturday ahead of his trip to Sri Lanka on March 28.
Jaishankar’s five-day visit is part of India’s attempt to proactively reach out with projects and initiatives to counter China’s influence. The Maldives visit comes at a time of protests there that the government has “sold out” to India.
Dubbed the “India Out” campaign, the protests have received active backing from Yameen and his Progressive Party, especially since his release from house arrest after he was exonerated from corruption charges. During his presidency, Yameen wooed China and gave his foreign policy a Beijing tilt. He hopes to make a comeback at the next election and has made this his main political platform.
With a friendly government in Male since 2017, India has been well positioned to build back influence in the country, vital along with Sri Lanka, to Delhi’s strategic interests in a region where China is also engaged in establishing its presence.