NEW DELHI: The Maldives, the strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago nation, is heading for its presidential election in September this year. Opposition parties in the Maldives are trying to whip up the “India Out” campaign amid a fractious political landscape. In an exclusive interview, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid talks at length about India-Maldives ties, and addresses India’s concerns on China and threats of growing radicalism, among other issues.
Q: What is the next frontier for India-Maldives relations? What are the next steps?
A: During the last four years of President Solih’s administration, India-Maldives relationship has reached new heights. The next step is consolidation to sustain this level of cooperation. We have seen how such a large country like India and a small country like the Maldives can partner for the goodness of humanity and for the welfare of the people of our two countries. We have set a good example for the rest of the world, that irrespective of the size of the country, we can build good relations based on mutual respect and respect for international law, the promotion of good governance, human rights, and, most importantly, the wellbeing of the people of our two countries.
Q: What’s the status of infrastructure and development cooperation between India and the Maldives?
A: In the last four years, we have seen very large infrastructure projects take shape in the Maldives, through the EXIM Bank financing. Since the Maldives graduated from LDC (least developed country) to a middle-income country, the concessional financing that was available to the Maldives and such other LDCs that have graduated is no longer available. So we need financing for our development and in that respect, India has been most generous to us to provide the much-needed financing for our development of infrastructure. The largest project in Maldivian history, the Thilafushi-Male bridge is progressing. We have water and sanitation projects, also the upgrading of Addu airport, building an international airport in Hanimaadhoo—all these are going to make a huge change to the Maldivian economy.
Q: How do you look at the deepening strategic convergence between India and the Maldives, especially in the Indian Ocean?
A: We are the heart of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives has no choice but to promote stability, prosperity and progress in the Indian Ocean. Because if the Indian Ocean is stable, prosperous and stable, then there is going to be stability and prosperity in the Maldives. Vice versa, if it does not, then it’s going to affect us. So it is in the inherent interest of our country that we promote and partner with everyone who shares our views. I’m very happy that we are able to partner with India and also with the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim Association to work together in the Indian Ocean for peaceful progress.
Q: The Presidential elections in the Maldives are scheduled for September and there’s some speculation in strategic circles, whether the next government would be as India-friendly as the Ibrahim Solih government.
A: Well, the next government in the Maldives will be led by President Ibrahim Solih. He’s going to be elected for a second term. The amount of work that he has done for the uplift of the people of Maldives is deeply appreciated by all. Especially during the tough times of two years of Covid. The way that the pandemic was handled by President Solih and his outstanding leadership is appreciated by the people and he is going to be re-elected. We will have the same policies of continuing our engagement with our neighbours, especially India, and also with the international community. We do not want to become an isolationist.
Q: Some political parties in the Maldives are known for their very pro-China position, which has hurt India’s interests. Do you see any rivalry between India and China in the Maldives?
A: China is a good friend of the Maldives. China has contributed to the development of the Maldives and the current government has very good relations with China. Our foreign policy is about engagement with everyone. We are not enemies to any country, and we are a friend to all.
We have a special relationship with India. And we have proven that together, we can do a lot of good work. We should not be asked by anyone to pick and choose our friends because the Maldives is a small country and this administration has chosen a policy of engagement with everyone.
Q: In India, there are concerns over reports of rising radicalism in the Maldives. And there are suspicions that it is being supported by some elements from a neighbouring country.
A: When it comes to rising radicalism, President Solih’s administration has been the only government in the Maldives that has dealt with it with definitive policies. We have not only amended the laws, but we have also decided to deal with it in a firm manner. As a result, we will not say that radicalism is on the rise in the Maldives. With international cooperation, with cooperation at the level of regional countries, we have been able to deal with it. And no country is free from radicalism, not here in the subcontinent or in the Indian Ocean.
Q: This year India holds the G-20 presidency. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also said that India will amplify the voice of the Global South. How do you look at India’s leadership of the Global South?
A: When you talk about the G-20, you start off with the premise that this is an exclusive group of 20 countries. And that everyone else has been left behind. But under the leadership of India and Prime Minister Modi, the focus is on inclusivity. The theme of India’s presidency is “One Earth One Family One Future”. So it’s not only G-20, but the 193 countries around the world, whether large or small, rich or poor, which India has included in its G-20 presidency. So, we feel very happy that the chair of the G-20 wants a future in which there is one earth and one family. I am personally delighted.
India today is not only a leader in the South, but India today is a leader of the world. It has the largest population, it has a fast-growing economy and India’s voice is respected and taken into consideration by large and small nations and also India’s international stance is outstanding. It was never like this in the past.
Manish Chand is CEO-Editor-in-Chief, India Writes Network, and India and The World magazine. He is Director, Centre for Global Insights India, a think-tank focused on global affairs.