Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 11 January 2024

India and Maldives: Old ties, new tensions

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” - Sun Tzu

Relevance: GS II (International Relations)

  • Prelims: Mapping; Bilateral Relations; SAGAR Initiative;
  • Mains: Current Trends in Bilateral ties;

Why in the News?

There is a rapid decline in ties between India and the Maldives, just a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu.


  • The trigger came from tweets by three Maldivian Ministers, attacking Mr. Modi for promoting the Lakshadweep islands during his recent sojourn there at a perceived cost to the Maldives and for his close ties with Israel; the Ministers also made derogatory remarks about Indians.
  • Once India conveyed its displeasure over this gross impropriety, the Maldivian government distanced itself from the remarks, and President Mohamed Muizzu “suspended” the errant ministers

Why does India need the Maldives?

  • Strategic Importance (Location and maritime security): Maldives’ proximity to the west coast of India, and its location at the hub of commercial sea-lanes running through the Indian Ocean (particularly the 8° N and 1 ½° N channels) imbues it with significant strategic importance to India. 
    • The security scenario in India’s periphery in the Indian Ocean is very much linked to the maritime strength of Maldives.
  • Defense: India invests on Maldives’ security by training its defense forces. Estimates suggest that almost 70% of Maldives’ defense training is done by India — either on the islands or in India’s elite military academies.
    • India has trained over 1,500 Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF) personnel in the past 10 years. The Indian Navy has given aircraft and choppers to the Maldivian defence forces for Aerial surveillance, and have trained their personnel on how to land vertically in the islands.
    • India also wants to set up a Coastal Radar System in Maldives, with a view to keep an eye on the activities in the Indian Ocean.
  • China Factor:  India is obviously concerned at the expanding Chinese footprint, especially since President Xi Jinping came to power. While Mohamed Nasheed first started the engagement with China, Abdulla Yameen took it up several notches during his term from 2013-2018. 
    • So, from a purely strategic perspective, India needs Maldives on its side to secure its maritime periphery, keep an eye on the Indian Ocean, and check the influence of China in its neighbourhood.

Why does Maldives need India?

  • Domestic needs: India supplies Maldives with its everyday essentials: rice, spices, fruits, vegetables, and poultry.  It also supplies medicines — not just everyday medicines, but all critical care and life-saving drugs.
    • India also supplies basic items to build infrastructure in Maldives — cement, rock boulders, and basically anything one needs to build a house or a bridge or a school or a hospital. 
    • In fact, one of the major multi-speciality hospitals in Maldives has been built by India, the 300-bed Indira Gandhi Memorial hospital.
  • Education: Since the Maldivians have a small population base and the islands are isolated and spread out, there are no major educational institutions. So, every year, Maldivian students flock to Indian higher educational institutions. The government gives out scholarships for Maldivian students to study in India.
  • Economic dependence: Maldives is dependent on India for most items, of the Rs 50 crore total trade between India and Maldives in 2022, Rs 49 crore was India’s exports to Maldives. India emerged as Maldives’ second largest trade partner in 2022.
  • Help during Disasters: India has been the main pillar of help for Maldives in times of crisis and distress.
    • When a tsunami struck the islands in 2004, India was the first to send in help. Again, in 2014, when Male suddenly had a drinking water crisis as the major desalination plant broke down, India overnight airlifted drinking water to the islands. 
    • During the Covid-19 pandemic, India sent essential medicines, masks, gloves, PPE kits and vaccines for the island country.
  • Security provider: When there was a coup attempt in 1988 against then President Abdul Gayoom, India sent in troops to fight the combatants.
    • Indian Navy and the Maldivian Navy conduct joint exercises and Indian assets are always in readiness in the vicinity to protect the island nation.
    • In this overall context, it is in the interest of both New Delhi and Male to dial down the current tensions, by assuaging each other’s concerns and cooperating on what matters most for both sides.

How bilateral ties can be improved? (Way Forward)

  • Need to defend Indian interests in the Indian Ocean: An exclusively land-based defense policy for India will, in future, be nothing short of blindness. China intends to embark on a policy of large-scale naval expansion that is clear enough with her bases extending as far south as Hainan, China will be in an advantageous position.
  • Need for Comprehensive direction: SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region) coined in 2015, has become a foreign-policy catchphrase, representing broad regional maritime cooperation. However, there is no document amplifying the vision underpinning SAGAR. Perhaps, it is time to flesh out SAGAR as a new and comprehensive maritime doctrine that will lend direction and purpose to regional diplomacy — both maritime and conventional.
  • Diplomatic approach needs scrutiny: Politics in Muslim-majority Maldives has been influenced, as much by hyper-nationalism and religious fervor, as by the India-China rivalry. While China’s politico-economic seduction coupled with Pakistan’s religious incitement — using the “Islamic card” — has no doubt played an important role in alienating Maldives, there is room for introspection on India’s part too.


Mains PYQs

Q. Discuss the political developments in Maldives in the last two years. Should they be of any cause of concern to India? (2013)

Q. What do you understand by ‘The String of Pearls’? How does it impact India? Briefly outline the steps taken by India to counter this. (2013)


Prelims PYQ (2014)

Which one of the following pairs of islands is separated from each other by the 'Ten Degree Channel'?

(a). Andaman and Nicobar

(b). Nicobar and Sumatra

(c). Maldives and Lakshadweep

(d). Sumatra and Java

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