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India-Maldives & its Implications on Development Diplomacy

India’s ambitious vision of being a pole in world politics must begin at home, with a closer look at geopolitics in its backyard

Words by Dr. Swati Prabhu

Pictures of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Lakshwadeep were all over the internet on January 4, 2024. However, what started off as a minor social media trolling on the post praising the pristine beauty of the beautiful island quickly snowballed into a diplomatic row between India and the Maldives.

Though no mention was made to the Indian Ocean Island nation by the Indian PM in his post, several social media users began to raise concerns over why anyone should be visiting the Maldives when one is blessed with such natural beauty in one’s own backyard. This resulted in a social media war where three Maldivian deputy ministers and a few MPs indulged in derogatory language against PM Modi elevating into a serious diplomatic situation. However, this issue needs to be viewed from a geopolitical context.

The larger picture

Over the years, Maldives, a strategically placed island nation in the Indian Ocean archipelago, has featured quite prominently in India’s development partnerships. From building hospitals, technical institutions to costal protection, there are several projects that have been completed with Indian grant assistance like the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Malé in 1995; the Maldives Institute of Technical Education (now the Maldives Polytechnic) in 1996; India-Maldives Faculty of Hospitality & Tourism Studies in 2014; National College for Police and Law Enforcement (NCPLE) in 2022 etc.

Moreover, India’s contribution under the High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) is notable. An MoU between India and Maldives regarding grant assistance of MVR 85 million for implementation of HICDPs through local bodies was signed during India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Maldives in March 2019.

Apart from this, India has also extended Lines of Credit (LOCs) of about US$ 800 million for projects in water and sanitation, fisheries, infrastructural connectivity, health, education etc. In fact, as a form of reciprocity, Maldives also prioritized New Delhi as a key ally under its ‘India First’ Policy under former President Mohamed Ibrahim Solih in 2018.

However, following the diplomatic row, under its recent interim budget announcement released on February 1, India proposed to cut aid to the Maldives by 22 per cent in the upcoming financial year. Maldives has been allocated third highest aid to any foreign country by the government that stands at ₹600 crore for developmental assistance.

Moreover, the newly-elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu along with his predecessor, former President Abdullah Yameen, have been helming the ‘India Out’ campaign during the elections. This domestic political movement in the Maldives certainly reflects a complex interplay of national sovereignty concerns and external influences.

In fact, India’s development partnerships are not devoid of strategic intent.

China’s growing presence in the region with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) serves as a crucial factor influencing New Delhi’s geopolitical gameplay in the region. The recent state of visit of President Muizzu to China on January 10, the first after he came into power, concentrated on a slew of initiatives, such as a greater pitch for foreign direct investment (FDI); trade and tourism at ‘Invest Maldives’ forum organized at Fuzhou, China; the Maldives-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which is in the pipeline; extending infrastructural connectivity under BRI, etc.

It been reported that China has gifted ‘free military assistance’ under a defence cooperation agreement signed between the two countries to promote stronger ‘bilateral’ ties. This needs to be seen in the light of a deadline announced by Maldivian President Muizzu asking Indian troops (that provide humanitarian and medevac or medical evacuation services) to withdraw from its country by March 15. These initiatives and announcements undoubtedly come at the expense of India’s security in the region.

A Lens on Development Diplomacy

Development Diplomacy, i.e., utilising development partnerships as a tool of diplomacy to cater to the larger public good, has witnessed an upswing in recent times, particularly from the Global South. For example, India’s initiative of distributing vaccines under Vaccine Maitri to several countries in its neighbourhood and also in Africa came at a time when multilateral institutions failed to take urgent action.

But then we have the China model of development partnerships which relies heavily on the “consumption-led-growth” strategy. Explicitly promoting Beijing’s strategic intent, BRI’s massive scale has become ‘a magnet of controversy and criticism’. Establishing unsound projects for securing and expanding Chinese access to resources or local markets, BRI has been termed as a ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ tool of Beijing.

As India’s development partnerships are demand-driven and follow the policy of ‘no-strings attached conditionalities’, its role in the global development architecture is pivotal. In fact, steering the conversation on sustainability and South-South Cooperation (SSC), India must work towards forging robust alliances in its neighbourhood and beyond, thereby carrying forward the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Through dialogue, diplomacy and development, India can possibly cut off the choppy waters with Maldives and counter the China challenge in the region.

Dr. Swati Prabhu is Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Her research explores the interlinkages between development partnerships and sustainable development. Swati’s broader research interests encompass India-EU relations, sustainability, and development diplomacy. She holds a PhD from Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on the European Union’s development cooperation and environment, focusing on the challenges of the SDGs.

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