June 16, 2024
What’s the latest blip in India-Maldives ties? | Explained

What’s the latest blip in India-Maldives ties? | Explained

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu during the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai on December 1, 2023. Photo: X/@narendramodi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu during the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai on December 1, 2023. Photo: X/@narendramodi

The story so far: Earlier this month, the Maldives Cabinet decided against renewing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with India for cooperation in hydrography. The agreement, which was signed in 2019, is due to expire in 2024. Coming soon after newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu’s pledge to send back Indian troops currently stationed in the Indian Ocean archipelago, the move was yet another indication of his government’s intention to reverse the former Ibrahim Mohamed Solih administration’s ‘India first’ policy.

What is hydrography?

It is the science of studying oceans, seas, and other water bodies, by compiling and analysing data, maps, and charts. Branching off from applied sciences, it looks at measuring and describing the physical attributes of water bodies and predicting how they might change over time. While it is said to be undertaken primarily for safety of navigation, it also supports other activities, such as economic development, security and defence, scientific research, and environmental protection. Hydrographical measurements include tidal, current and wave information.

What is India’s expertise?

India has been an active member of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) since 1955. The Indian Naval Hydrographic Department (INHD), or the Marine Survey of India earlier, was established in 1874 in Kolkata. It is the nodal agency for hydrographic surveys and has a fleet of indigenously built modern survey ships. India partners with many countries in the Indian Ocean Region and African and East Asian countries such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Tanzania, Maldives, Mozambique, Vietnam, Myanmar, Kenya, and Sri Lanka. According to the INHD, its role has broadened over time, owing to the heightening global character of hydrography and “its growing potential as a force multiplier” in terms of maritime diplomacy. Personnel from 39 countries have trained at the National Institute of Hydrography, functioning under the INHD.

Why was the 2019 MoU significant?

The MoU was signed in June 2019, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the Maldives. It was Mr. Modi’s first overseas visit after assuming office for his second term, and  his second visit to the Maldives since he participated at President Solih’s swearing-in ceremony in 2018. Months before the time the MoU was inked, President Solih and the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had secured a landslide win in the general elections. The two Indian Ocean neighbours, and their leaders, backed by a decisive majority, committed to close cooperation in development, defence and maritime security. The first meeting of the Joint Commission on Hydrography was held in the Maldives in September 2019. Following the agreement, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and the Indian Navy have carried out three joint hydrographic surveys in 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Why has the Cabinet decided against renewing the agreement?

While President Muizzu has not made a statement specifically on the MoU on the joint hydrographic survey, a senior official told Maldivian media that the decision was aligned to the current administration’s pledge to terminate all agreements with foreign parties that are detrimental to or endanger the national security of the Maldives. “It is in the best interest of Maldivian sovereignty that this capacity is improved within our own military, entrusting them with the responsibilities of surveilling and policing our waters, and excluding the participation of any foreign party in such an endeavour,” Under Secretary for Public Policy Mohamed Firzul told a media conference.

 Muizzu’s win | How will it impact India-Maldives relations?

The message appeared to be in line with Mr. Muizzu’s broad election campaign, pledging to remove Indian troops from the country and “restoring the Maldives’s sovereignty”. Once he assumed charge, the core demand of the ‘India Out’ campaign led by former President Abdulla Yameen, found mention in President Muizzu’s first set of official announcements.

How has India responded?

In its first response yet to the Cabinet decision, the Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday said India had a “proven track record” in the field. “Let me just say that India has a proven track record in the field of hydrography. And we have also been cooperating with many countries in the Indian Ocean region on hydrography and various elements related to that. The benefits to partner countries are visible, I would like to just leave it at that,” spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told the weekly media conference.

What does this mean for India-Maldives ties?

Going by recent developments, it appears as if New Delhi will have to brace for a challenging phase of its Male partnership. Maldives is a member of the Colombo Security Conclave, an initiative aimed at enhancing Indian Ocean maritime security, that includes India, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius. However, earlier this month, the Maldives skipped the latest round of the Conclave’s NSA-level meet held in Mauritius. Notably, it coincided with Maldivian Vice-President Hussain Mohamed Latheef’s visit to China, to attend the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation, where he said the Maldives was “eager to explore novel avenues of collaboration and cooperation with China”. The MEA’s response to the termination of the Maldives’s joint hydrographic initiative with India, pointed to New Delhi’s belief that its neighbours should tap the “benefits” of India’s expertise. How it will navigate the choppy waters connecting its southern neighbour will be closely watched.

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