Maldives president calls India ‘our closest friend’, moving focus away from China

Maldives president calls India ‘our closest friend’, moving focus away from China

SAM Report,
Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on December 17, 2018. Photo: AFP

The new president of the Maldives has called India the island nation’s “closest friend” and secured US$1.4 billion from New Delhi in his first overseas trip since his election..

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih spoke on Sunday in New Delhi. In September he defeated strongman Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who forged closer ties to China during his five years in office.

On Monday, Solih said after talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that they would “strengthen maritime security” through patrols, aerial surveillance and exchanging information.

“India is our closest neighbour and our people are bound by ties of friendship and cultural affinity,” Solih told reporters. “Within those close links, trade and commerce have flourished. India is not only our closest friend, it’s also one of our largest trading partners.”

The package of financial help is in the form of budgetary support, currency swap agreements and credit lines, Modi said, after what he called “successful talks” to build upon the two countries’ “deep-rooted” friendship.

“We want greater trade ties with Maldives. There are increasing opportunities for Indian companies in the island nation. This is beneficial for both the countries,” Modi said. “Our security interests are interlinked. We will not allow our countries to be used for harmful activities against each other.”

India has long seen the Indian Ocean nation of 400,000 people as part of its sphere of influence. China, though, sees the Maldives as a key cog in its “Belt and Road Initiative”, which follows ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. Beijing is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in an airport expansion, housing estates and other projects in the Maldives.

But speaking at an India-Maldives business forum, Solih told business leaders “India is not only our closest friend, it is also our largest trading partner,” the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

He said the Maldives is ripe for more Indian investment, insisting the country is committed to providing the “protection and legal cover” that investors require.

The Maldives has faced years of political turmoil since the first democratic elections a decade ago.

Tourism dominates the Maldives’ economy, with wealthy foreigners flown directly to expensive resort islands.

The Centre for Global Development, a Washington think tank, estimates China’s loans to Maldives total at least US$1.3 billion, a quarter of the island nation’s gross domestic product.

Chinese loans to the Maldives have fuelled fears in New Delhi that Beijing is trying to encroach on New Delhi’s influence in the Indian Ocean.

Maldives police announced on Sunday that Yameen is under investigation for corruption after a court ordered accounts holding US$6.5 million to be frozen. He was interviewed by police on the honeymoon islands on Saturday.

He has been dogged by allegations he received close to US$1.5 million in illicit payments during his failed bid for re-election.

The country’s monetary authority lodged a police complaint about the alleged donations made into a private account held by Yameen in two suspicious tranches, local media reported.

The former strongman, who ruled with an iron fist, jailing or exiling his opponents, has denied the allegations.