Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Maldives this week to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation came at a critical juncture, with the island country planning to hold general elections in September 2023. Singh’s trip was preceded by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit in January, where he emphasized India and Maldives’ shared responsibility for maintaining regional peace and security.
Such flurries of high-level visits from New Delhi are often witnessed in neighboring countries where good relations with India do not enjoy bipartisan support. In recent times, Malé’s relationship with New Delhi has been swinging between the “India First” policy of current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and the “India Out” campaign of his predecessor and political opponent Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom.
Maldives’ location in the north-central Indian Ocean is of immense significance to India, for both geostrategic and geoeconomic reasons. Beyond fishing, the economic importance is enhanced by the presence of seabed minerals like polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean Basin. These nodules contain rare earth metals and critical minerals that form the backbone of green technologies like electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines. As countries are moving toward zero emissions, the need to secure these minerals will lead to race among the major powers.
According to the International Seabed Authority, India has been granted exclusive right to explore polymetallic nodules in 75,000 square kilometers of the Central Indian Ocean Basin. With India making some considerable progress in deep-sea mining schemes like Deep Ocean Mission and Ocean-Services, Modelling, Application, Resources and Technology (O-SMART), Maldives can be used as a stop-over during Indian survey and exploration missions. Carrying out such activities will require a stable, peaceful, and prosperous maritime environment in the Indian Ocean, where India can carve a confident niche for itself. To make it happen, New Delhi will have to leverage the island nation in building a stable security architecture in the Indian Ocean Region.
At the same time, China has invested heavily in deep-sea submersibles and autonomous underwater vehicles, both of which are required to carry out deep-sea exploration and mapping. Such vehicles are often on board Chinese research vessels and surveillance ships that are carrying out deep water missions in the Indian Ocean region. In 2018, China’s unmanned submersible Qianlong 2 found polymetallic sulphide deposits in the seabed of the western Indian Ocean after operating for 257 hours in nine separate underwater missions. To further complement its sea-based surveillance, it plans to devote three satellites to the effort.
However, China has been granted the rights to only 10,000 square kilometers of the seabed, compared to the 75,000 square kilometers granted to India. This puts India into an advantageous position, and hence its should not lose ground in its own backyard. India’s successful exploitation of these minerals will not only diversify resource supplies away from China, but also will help make India self-sufficient in certain minerals like nickel and cobalt. In the future, India can capitalize on this development, and share the wealth with small island nations like Maldives, who live every day with the reality of climate change.
Last year, during Jaishankar’s visit to Addu atoll, the southernmost point on the Maldives archipelago, New Delhi proposed to build a consulate there, which would be the first of any country outside the capital Malé. However, the proposal has been put on hold due to anti-India sentiment. The Anti-India campaign has attracted many youth, some of whom are radicalized and have jihadi connections (relative to total population size, more Maldivians went to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria than any other foreign nation). This can work against India in the long run and also affect the social and economic stability of a country located within India’s inner periphery.
The India Out campaign was particularly vehement during the dispensation of the previous president, the pro-China Abdulla Gayoom. And as the elections near, calls for “India Out” are again on the rise.
Under itsBelt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing is acquiring strategic locations that can help it expand its primacy, influence, and reach in the Indian Ocean. In the island nation of Maldives, it has undertaken projects like the expansion of Velana international airport, the largest housing complex in Hulmale, five-star resorts on different islands, and a land reclamation project, among other investments. Lending for all these infrastructure projects has made Maldives one of the region’s largest debtors of Beijing. Maldives’ total debt is roughly $6.5 billion, amounting to over 30 percent of its gross national income. Of that, Maldives owes an estimated $1.4 billion to China – and possibly as much as $3.5 billion.
Repeating the Sri Lanka story, where a deeply indebted country defaulted and India went out of its way to bail it out, will not be beneficial for either India or Maldives, or for the region at large. It will instead allow China to gain undue influence in a region where India enjoys considerable historical and people-to-people ties.
Economically, the region is further important due to its location close to the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. Huvadhu Kandu, which separates the Northern and Southern Maldives, is a safe passage for trade passing from west to east and vice versa. Providing a safe and secure passage of goods, especially for oil and gas imports from West Asia, is of critical importance to the energy security of every country in the region and beyond. Maldives’ role as a toll gate in the Indian Ocean Region, multiplied with India’s role as a net security provider, is of immense significance for this.
In this context, the gifting of an India-made fast patrol boat, and a landing craft assault ship, in addition to large-scale training of the Maldivian coast guard is a step in the right direction. In addition to providing traditional security, building Maldives’ capacity will help in jointly dealing with disasters, whether due to climate change or oil spills.
In Maldives, the average ground level elevation is barely 1.5 meters above the sea level. This makes it the world’s lowest lying country, and the worst impacted by rising sea levels. This reality has induced climate migration to nearby India, where Maldivians are buying properties in Kerala in order to relocate in the future.
Given that India is a leading player in the region, it should not miss the forest for the trees. Losing a match on one’s home ground is worse than losing to an opponent in a far-off place. Under the current dispensation in Maldives, India is enjoying a comfortable position in its bilateral relationship. Further using the tools of diplomacy, information dominance, military cooperation, and economic ties, it should regain previously lost ground and build bipartisan support for the India-Maldives relationship.
However, in this regard India need not follow in China’s footsteps. New Delhi must instead create a niche for itself in an Indian way that respects sovereignty, provides mutual benefit, and is transparent, sustainable, and future-oriented.