New beginnings: Maldives leader India’s first state guest in 2014

maldives-arrivalNew Year, new beginnings. Indian diplomacy has kicked off 2014 with the state visit of the newly-elected Maldives president, underlining the country’s focus on building robust relations with its neighbours and the strategically situated region in the months ahead.

The Maldivian leader’s visit will be followed by South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s trip to India mid-January. The crowning moment for Indian diplomacy in 2014 will be the state visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to New Delhi as Chief Guest for the country’s Republic Day celebrations, marking a defining milestone in rapidly transforming relations between the two Asian democracies.

What’s on agenda?

The visit of Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the half-brother of the Maldives’ former long-time ruler, promises to open a new chapter in India’s multi-faceted relations with the picturesque atoll nation, which was stressed by prolonged political churn in the island nation following the ouster of Mohamed Nasheed in February 2012.

The fact that Mr Yameen has chosen India as his first overseas destination after taking charge in November 2013 is laden with immense symbolism and is meant to signal that Male, despite the recurrent vagaries of politics, continues to see New Delhi as an indispensable and preferred partner in its developmental aspirations.

Given its huge stakes in peace and stability in the archipelago nation, India is leaving no stone unturned to make sure that the visit culminates in substantive outcomes and lays the foundation for robust relations between New Delhi and the new dispensation in Male. The focus will be on getting a multi-pronged developmental partnership back on track and rejuvenating economic ties, which were buffeted by internal political dynamics of the island country, better known for its pristine beaches and opulent honeymoon resorts.

In his talks with the Maldivian leader, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be looking to get a sense of the new leadership’s attitude towards India and seek a fresh assurance on the security of Indian investments in that country. The cancellation of   a $511 million airport development contract with GMR Infrastructure (GMRI.NS), the biggest Indian investment in the atoll nation, by the Maldivian government in November 2012 had put severe strain on bilateral ties and created much bitterness between New Delhi and Male. With the new regime in charge, India will, therefore, be hoping that the new Maldivian leader shows initiative in resolving this irritant so that the two countries can focus their diplomatic energies on more rewarding engagement in other areas. The talks are also expected to see a restart of disbursal of $100 million line of credit, which was pledged by the Indian prime minister during his visit to Male in November 2011.

Why Maldives matters?

Fmaldives-pmor a strategically-located country which is assiduously courted by Beijing, the importance of the Maldives, home to around 30,000 Indians, can hardly be overstated for India. India plans to scale up its defence cooperation with the Maldives, especially in areas of counter-piracy and maritime security.  With hardline Islamist forces gaining a foothold in the nearly 100 per cent Sunni Muslim nation of around 300,000 people, India is also looking to enhance counter-terror cooperation with the Maldives.

Against this evolving backdrop of economic and security interests, India and the Maldives had signed an umbrella pact in November 2011, which envisaged an intensification of cooperation in diverse areas, including trade, technology, capacity building and counter-terrorism. With stability returning to the atoll nation and a new leadership in charge in Male, the two countries should now focus on carrying forward the 2011 pact and explore new initiatives to firm up this important partnership.

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