India key partner, our security linked to immediate neighbours: Maldives foreign minister

NEW DELHI: With the formation of a new government in the Maldives, India may finally have a chance to reclaim some of the strategic space it had to cede to China in the Indian Ocean in the past few years.

In an exclusive interaction with TOI, Maldives foreign minister described former president Abdulla Yameen’s foreign policy as reckless which, he said, had “amassed a number of issues to the region.”

“Indian Ocean security is paramount. Maldives‘ security has always been closely linked to the security of our immediate neighbours,’’ said Shahid.

Discussing the need for Male to restore balance in its foreign policy, which under Yameen saw China emerging as its focal point, Shahid said India was going to become a key partner in the development of the Maldives.

“Decisions already taken (by the new government) shows President Solih administration will priorities the Maldives’ traditional relationship with India. PM Modi’s presence at the inauguration and the discussion between the two leaders are a signal of President Solih’s keenness to restore the friendship,” he said.

Shahid said Indian naval helicopters deployed in Maldives will not be removed and that Male will also prioritise visa issues for Indian nationals. The Yameen government had in April this year asked India to remove both its helicopters from the archipelago, delivering perhaps the most severe blow to bilateral relations in recent times.

Around the same time, the Yameen administration gave instructions to the immigration department to delay, if not deny outright, work visas to Indians. This, among other things, also delayed work on projects like the police academy India is helping Male build.

Shahid, who will travel to India for his first visit abroad as foreign minister on November 26, said that India also must also restore the reciprocal benefits. “For example, Maldivians need visas to India for a number of reasons. We must be able to reciprocate,” he said.

On relations with India. Shahid said the new government looked at India as key partner in building democracy. “India has traditionally been a key trading partner. We will restore that. India has always been a key partner in many economic and social aspects (health education housing). Hope to see India’s assistance continue and grow,” said Shahid. This is significant as Male is said to be considering pulling out of an FTA with China.

One of the most significant decisions which the Solih government took immediately after taking over on Saturday was to rejoin Commonwealth. Shahid said Cabinet had already taken the decision to join back Commonwealth and that Parliament will ratify it as soon as possible.

“Maldivian people will again enjoy the benefits of being in the organization, key international partner. This was one of the first decisions taken by the Cabinet and it’s an indication that Maldives will be full- fledged member of the community of democratic nations,” said Shahid.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), now the leading party in the ruling coalition, had described Yameen’s decision to quit Commonwealth as a despotic move, which said much about “the Yameen regime and its political posturing and disregard for international or public opinion.”

India’s ambassador to the Maldives Akhilesh Mishra met Shahid earlier this week to congratulate him for his help as the head of the transition team in the run up to Modi’s visit. The 2 also discussed the priorities and agenda for Shahid’s visit to India.

Shahid has the onerous task of walking the India-China tightrope in the next few months. His visit to India will be followed by that to China. MDP has on several occasions said that the Maldives owes close to 70 per cent of its external debt to China. MDP leader has called for an audit of all projects keeping in mind Maldives economic vulnerability.
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