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Maldives International and Regional Relations Survey

Maldives international and regional relations are regulated by the geo-strategically significant location on the southern edge of the Indian Peninsula and astride the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean region, which see huge traversing of trade from the Middle East to South-East and East Asia.

Given the proximity to India, located 70 nautical miles from Minicoy Islands and 300 nautical miles away from India's West Coast, Male has traditionally followed an "India First," policy.

The location of the atolls amidst the commercial sea‐lanes running through the Indian Ocean (particularly the 8° N and 1 ½° N channels) has resulted in the entry of extra-regional powers as China with anxiety in India on the traditional role of primacy.

The giant economies straddling the extremities of this oceanic communications seek security of these with Maldives and Sri Lanka being the only two landing points in the vast oceanic zone. This has led to China the second-largest economy in the World seeking a large footprint of assurance in Maldives through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was adopted by Maldives.

With India being highly sensitive to extra-regional powers in the immediate periphery, the atolls are ripe for competition cum confrontation between the two large Asian Powers.

Internal political rivalries fanned by competition external powers have added to the contestations.

Former Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom openly adopted a pro-China policy from 2013 to 2018. This has led to considerable tensions with India and the final ousting of Gayoom in elections held in November 2018 in which a pro India President Mohammed Solih was elected to power.

A critical concern that emerged with China's major investments in Maldives were that of a debt trap on similar lines as that experienced by Sri Lanka, which had to convert China's debt into equity, giving up exclusive rights over the Hambantota port constructed with Chinese loans. Solih's adoption of pro India foreign policy has also seen a backlash with an "India Out," campaign launched by Gayoom backers and others who see India's overbearing presence in Maldives as detrimental to a balanced foreign policy.

Both countries maintain constant contact with the highest leadership in Maldives, which is evident with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih having phone conversations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China's President Xi Jinping separately in the month of July 2021.

Recently the United States China competition, U.S. policies of expanding influence in the Indo Pacific and formation of QUAD group to include India, Australia, Japan and the United States had added another layer of complexity to Maldives external relations dilemma.

Using the Islamic card another layer is added to the diplomacy puzzle with Saudi Arabia's attempts to increase influence in the Indian Ocean region.

In 2015, the Maldives' Parliament approved a constitutional amendment to grant foreign ownership of land to foreign land-buyers 70% of the desired land being reclaimed from the ocean and invest at least $1 billion in a construction project approved by Parliament. This had led to some initial interest by the Gulf states but was not pursued thereafter.

Suffice to say the challenge for a small state in a geo-strategically important space of managing relations between two primary competing regional powers and blocks remains considerable.

There is growing nationalist sentiment in Maldives with resentment against India and China for their attempts to exercise influence in the country for what the locals perceive as their respective national interests rather than benefiting Maldives.

This has been expressed in the media as well as in public protests such as those calling for, "India Out."

The Foreign Ministry has cautioned local media outlets from publishing news that are disrespectful and directly affect the integrity of foreign diplomats, diplomatic missions and so on as these are against the 'Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961' which sets out the framework for diplomatic relations between two nations and rights and protections guaranteed to diplomats working in a foreign nation.

This comes even as the police arrested a man for threatening to bomb the Indian High Commission in Male in July. Security of the Indian High Commission in Male' City has now been enhanced.

Meanwhile, Addu City's Mayor Ali Nizar stated that Council is working on establishing a Sri Lankan or Chinese consulate at the city – prior to an Indian consulate.

Notwithstanding the same Maldives has retained a strong international posture due to aggressive diplomacy and managing support of India as well as China an outcome was the election of the Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid as President of the UN General Assembly for one year in 2021-22.


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