During his recent visit to Delhi, Maldivian Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim said that his government will continue to adhere to Maldives’s ‘India First’ policy with regard to the conduct of its foreign relations. The statement is welcome. It is a positive first step the Maldives has taken to repair relations with India. A little over a month ago, Maldives signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China during President Abdulla Yameen’s visit to Beijing. This made the archipelago the second South Asian country, after Pakistan, to sign an FTA with the Chinese. Understandably, it triggered concern in Delhi as the FTA is likely to expand Chinese influence into Maldives, perhaps even pave the way for a Chinese military presence there. Such a presence would threaten India’s interests as the Maldives is located near the Indian mainland and also lies near sea lanes through which traverse India’s oil imports. Relations between India and the Maldives were strong for decades and India has always looked upon Male as a friend. After all, it has played a huge role in Maldives’ political stability, security and economic development. Consequently, it believed that the archipelago would be sensitive to India’s security and other concerns. The Yameen government’s FTA with China has been seen in Delhi as a betrayal of that trust. Adding salt to injury was the fact that Maldives had promised to sign its first FTA with India. It did not do so. Moreover, the furtive manner in which the Yameen government went about finalising the FTA with China added to Delhi’s suspicions.
What transpired at the meetings between Indian leaders and Foreign Minister Asim has not been made public. It will take more than a feel-good statement from the Maldivians to convince India that Male prioritises India in its foreign policy. India will be watching to see whether Asim’s verbal assurances translate into action. Last year, three Chinese warships docked at Maldives. Have we seen the last of such visits by Chinese vessels? Will Maldives finalise an FTA with India that will enable the latter to gain lost ground in the archipelago?
Whether or not the Maldivian government has cleared the air with Delhi, India cannot undo the FTA. China’s giant footprint in Maldives is a fait accompli. Hopefully, the Narendra Modi government has drawn some lessons from the Maldives fiasco. India’s tardiness in finalising an FTA with Maldives opened space for the Chinese to step in. India’s diplomats and intelligence officials failed the country. They did not foresee or act to prevent the Chinese from gaining ground in our strategic backyard.
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