South Asian leaders convened in the capital of the Maldives earlier this month. It was an appropriate venue for their summit as the island nation’s regional importance is set to increase when the region around the Indian Ocean takes center stage in the twenty-first century.
Indo-Maldives relations were affirmed in a joint statement. The two countries agreed to deepen existing strategic relations and improve cooperation in combating drug trafficking and terrorism. India also agreed to undertake a feasibility study into developing a port north of Malé in the Haa Dhaalu Atoll which would be a huge boon to the northern Maldives’ economy.
Before the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit commenced, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed vowed that his country would never menace India’s security, clearing apprehension in New Delhi that the atolls might be lured into China’s “yuan diplomacy.”
India maintains strategic relations with the Maldives for two reasons. Its intelligence services uncovered that a top operative of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant Islamist organization that orchestrated the 2008 Mumbai attacks, attempted to set up an Indian Ocean base for the group. The plot would have involved Lashkar-e-Taiba storing weapons on an uninhabited island.
In 2008, terrorist activity in the Maldives spiked with a bombing in Malé and the settlement of a jihadist community in Himandhoo, a previously uninhabited Maldivian atoll. India seeks to coordinate counterterrorism efforts with the Maldives to stamp out this presence.
India and the Maldives have also strengthened defense cooperation to counter China’s rise in the Indian Ocean area. Per a 2009 security agreement, India will construct a radar network across the atolls and link it to its coastal command. It also regularly surveys the islands with military flights and plans to erect an air force station in the Maldives.
The Maldives form a vital cog in India’s naval diplomacy. All great powers that have attempted to dominate the Indian Ocean sought a base in the Maldives, including the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, the Americans and the Soviets.
Unlike these past great powers, India has traditionally enjoyed close relations with the island nation. It notably helped the Maldivian government thwart a coup in 1988 which saved Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s presidency. Although his successor is of a very different political persuasion, Indo-Maldivian relations have continued to blossom under Mohamed Nasheed’s leadership because they serve the interests of both partners.
As India emerges as a great power, it is important that it appreciates the sensitivities of its neighboring states and not conduct its foreign policy from a Delhi centric point of view. For India to project “soft power” abroad, it has to be perceived as a “big brother” in Asia that doesn’t at all threaten the interests nor sovereignty of its vassals.