In another diplomatic triumph for India, the strategically located island nation and India’s maritime neighbor, Maldives is likely to scrap a deal with China to build an observatory in one of its northern islands. The agreement called Protocol on Establishment of Joint Ocean Observation Station would have allowed China to construct an observatory at Makunudhoo, the westernmost northern atoll of Maldives.
The deal had raised anxiety in New Delhi concerning maritime security. China’s presence in the crucial shipping route, the island’s close proximity to India the possibility of a military base for China would have bought the Dragon another pearl in its ‘String of Pearls’ aimed at strategically encircling India thereby checkmating India in the Indian Ocean region. Retired navy officials and experts suspected China’s goals to acquire accurate hydrological data for sub-surface operations including deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs and the then foreign secretary had raised the issue with the Maldivian envoy Ahmed Mohamed. Mohamed had clarified that China was only constructing a meteorological ocean observation center but India’s suspicions continued given China’s intentions that are hidden from no one.
The earlier administration of the Maldives led by Abdulla Yameen had a strong inclination towards China and had allowed Chinese interference in the island nation’s matters.
The small nation’s sovereignty came under threat under the Yameen government and pinnacled when a Free Trade Agreement was signed with China and the thousand-page document was ratified within an hour of being introduced in the parliament sending shockwaves up to New Delhi where the news was received with great unease. The geopolitically crucial nation, with a population of only a little over 400,000, owed an equivalent of 25 percent of its GDP to the mammoth superpower and fears falling into the Chinese debt trap reverberated in the country. It was only after the ouster of the former regime when tensions with India came to a halt. Narendra Modi’s visit to the swearing-in ceremony of Ibrahim Solih in October 2018, warmed relations between the two neighbors after which the trajectory of friendship and goodwill has only seen an up-trend.
The atoll nation scrapped the FTA with China shortly after the change in regime, while Modi government expressed keenness in empowering the island nation and relieving it of its debt burden by serving a $1.4 Billion line of credit announced in December 2018.
After being sworn in as Prime Minister the second time, Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit was to the Maldives staying true to his ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’. The Ibu Solih government conferred the Indian Prime Minister with the country’s highest honour accorded to foreign dignitaries, “The Most Honourable Order of the Distinguished Rule of Nishan Izzuddeen”.
Since the coming of Solih administration, Maldives has shown a clear preference for India over China and for this, the credit goes to constant engagement with the geopolitically crucial nation by the Modi government. There’s no looking back for the soaring Indo-Maldivian friendship.