Diplomacy Politics

Delhi’s bridge package set to boost Maldives ties amid rivalry with Beijing

India’s aid to the Maldives to build a bridge connecting four islands will further increase its visibility and rival a friendship bridge built by China amid a jostle for influence in the South Asian island nation.

The US$500 million (S$685 million) aid package for the construction of a 6.7km bridge, a causeway and embankment, announced by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, includes a loan and line of credit.

Called the Greater Male Connectivity Project, it will link capital Male with three other islands: Villingili, Thilafushi and Gulhifalhu.

At Gulhifalhu, India is additionally involved in constructing a port through a line of credit, said the Ministry of External Affairs.

The bridge was announced after talks between Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid last Thursday.

But analysts said much depended on whether deadlines could be met.

Construction of the bridge is set to start later this year, said sources.

“The Chinese have built the (friendship) bridge, which is quite fantastic in many ways,” said South Asia expert S.D. Muni.

“It will depend on what India delivers to the Maldives. So far as investments, it is welcome. We will see later on whether we have produced a product which can compete with the Chinese. It is for India to consolidate these gains.”

The announcement of the Indian bridge comes two years after China garnered much attention for building the US$200 million China-Maldives Friendship Bridge linking Male to Hulhule, the airport island.

It was a flagship project headlining a flurry of Chinese investments, which included the construction of an airport runway and housing projects, cementing China’s presence in the Maldives, an archipelago of around 1,190 islands, strategically located in the Indian Ocean.

 

The Maldives has traditionally followed an “India First policy”, but it drifted towards China during the regime of former president Abdulla Yameen.

Current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, since coming to power in 2018, has restored the Maldives’ traditional close relationship with India.

Still, China remains an important investor in the Maldives in spite of troubles such as accusations against Beijing of leaving the island nation with a huge pile of debt.

In a recent interview with Xinhua News, Mr Shahid said China would “continue to remain as an important economic and bilateral development partner of the Maldives”.

The Maldives, which depends heavily on tourism, saw some 280,000 out of 1.7 million tourists last year from China.

Mr N. Sathiya Moorthy, the senior fellow and director of the Observer Research Foundation in Chennai, said: “The bridge should be seen in the larger context of India’s ‘public diplomacy’ outreach in the Maldives. Other India-funded projects are even more at the grassroots level, where the island’s population across the archipelago can see, touch, feel and benefit from them directly.”

He noted that construction material and labour “have to anyway come from India”.

The Ministry of External Affairs said: “Once completed, this landmark project will streamline connectivity between the four islands, thereby boosting economic activity, generating employment and promoting holistic urban development in the Male region.”

India has given special focus to its ties with the Maldives, critical to India’s Indo-Pacific strategy amid the increasing presence of China in South Asia.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit abroad after coming back to power last year was to the Maldives, where he inaugurated a coastal radar system and a defence training centre.

Sources said the effort to reach out to the Maldives was to qualitatively and quantitatively change India’s engagement with the country.

India’s announcement of the bridge was welcomed in the Maldives, with President Solih tweeting: “A landmark moment in Maldives-India cooperation”.

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