India in recent years has stepped up strategic outreach to its Indian Ocean partners. Both the Maldives and Mauritius have been key in pursuing India’s maritime security agenda. Thus, it was not a surprise that Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S Jaishankar went on a four-day visit to the Maldives and Mauritius February 20-23. The minister held high-level meetings in both countries, including with the defense and foreign ministers, underlining the strategic intent of the trip. Following his meeting with the Maldivian defense minister, Jaishankar tweeted that “India will always be a reliable security partner for Maldives.” He had a similar message on India’s ties with Mauritius, saying “Partners in security.” Extending defense lines of credit and maritime security were dominant in the discussions in both countries.
Ever since Ibrahim Mohamed Solih became president of the Maldives, India-Maldives relations have been on an upswing and the recent visit is a testament to the present close ties between New Delhi and Malé. Solih’s predecessors in power were viewed in New Delhi as pro-China, which had soured relations.
In addition to Jaishankar’s meeting with Solih, he also met with Mohamed Nasheed, the speaker of the People’s Majlis (parliament). He also met with ministers including those overseeing foreign affairs, defense, and finance. The detailed joint statement issued at the end of the visit is an indicator of the breadth and depth of the bilateral ties between India and the Maldives. Recalling the 55th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the foreign ministers “reaffirmed their commitment to further deepening and strengthening the relationship, and exploring new areas of cooperation.”
The two ministers also reviewed the execution of various infrastructure and development projects in the Maldives financed by India’s previous line of credit. India had earlier offered assistance to eight major infrastructure projects, of which the contract for construction of roads and drainage systems in Addu City was presented during the visit. India in October 2020 had also offered financial assistance of $400 million for the Greater Malé Connectivity project (GMCP) for which the tender has already been published by the Ministry of Finance. The ministers also reviewed other projects including the Hanimaadhoo Airport expansion, the construction of water and sanitation infrastructure on 34 islands, and the National College of Policing and Law Enforcement Studies in Addu City, which is scheduled to be inaugurated in April 2021. The two sides agreed to continue the progress made in institutionalizing linkages between the police organizations of India and Maldives in capacity building by focusing on training.
In addition to India’s routine invocation of the threat of terrorism, New Delhi extended a $50 million defense line of credit for two security projects. India and the Maldives also signed an agreement to develop, support and maintain an important naval facility for the Maldivian armed forces. The Maldives National Defense Force Coast Guard Harbor at Sifvaru (Uthuru Thilafalhu) will be developed and supported by Indian assistance. This is a follow-up to the Maldives’ earlier request for Indian support in enhancing the capacity of the Maldivian defense forces to carry out maritime surveillance of its exclusive economic zone and islands. This is also in line with and a furthering of the earlier Action Plan for Defense Cooperation signed in April 2016 and further discussions thereafter.
Mauritius was the second leg of Jaishankar’s four-day Indian Ocean trip. In addition to signing the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA), which is India’s first such agreement with an African nation, India and Mauritius also signed an agreement that will provide Mauritius with a Dornier aircraft and an advanced light helicopter (the Indian-built Dhruv) on a gratis loan basis for two years. This will be significant in enhancing Mauritius’ capabilities to patrol and maintain effective surveillance over its extensive maritime spaces. India also extended a $100 million defense line of credit that will support acquisition of defense assets from India. The joint statement issued during the visit said that “these initiatives underline once again that the security of Mauritius is the security of India; in the prosperity of Mauritius is our prosperity.”
Jaishankar, in his meeting with the Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, also discussed the issue of Chagos Archipelago, whose sovereignty has been a point of contention between Mauritius and the United Kingdom. India has extended complete support to Mauritius on the issue – in fact in May 2019, India was one of 116 countries that supported Mauritius by voting in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution clearly stating that the U.K. is “under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.” The resolution further demanded that the U.K. “withdraw its colonial administration from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within a period of no more than six months from the adoption of the present resolution, thereby enabling Mauritius to complete the decolonization of its territory as rapidly as possible.” India continues to stand by Mauritius on the issue.
For now, India appears to be maintaining a close watch on China’s growing presence and influence in the Indian Ocean region. This in fact has prompted New Delhi to improve its strategic game in engaging its Indian Ocean neighbors. But India’s challenge has always been in scaling up the aid and assistance sufficiently to take advantage of the opportunities and goodwill that exist in these countries, especially compared to what China can offer. Nevertheless, for the time being, Maldives and Mauritius appear to be success stories in Indian outreach in the region.