New Delhi: India on Monday signed a key defence pact with Maldives to train Maldivian defence personnel and supply critical equipment in a seeming bid to stem a growing Chinese influence over the country.

The defence pact was one among a handful signed in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maldives President Abdulla Yameen who arrived in New Delhi on Sunday in a seemingly sudden visit.

The visit comes at a time when the two countries are working towards bringing back ties on an even keel after a downslide following the Maldives seeming tilt towards China. Such efforts come against the backdrop of India’s apparent support for the former Maldivian president, Mohammed Nasheed, and the repeated calls to the Maldives to move forward on the road to democracy.

In recent months, India has stopped chiding Maldives in public, though it has kept a close eye on the developments in the atoll nation.

Modi, who was supposed to have visited the Maldives last March, dropped the country from his schedule due to the political unrest there.

Besides jailing Nasheed on charges of terrorism that rights organizations say are false, the Yameen administration is accused of stifling the voice of the opposition besides cracking down on those critical of the government.

This was Yameen’s third visit to India since taking office in late 2013. The Maldivian president visited India twice in 2014.

After talks with Modi on Monday, Yameen said the main purpose of his visit was to express appreciation for “the very steadfast leadership that India has shown in protecting the Maldives in the CMAG (Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group) deliberations. We look forward to India’s continued support in preventing any unfair, any punitive action by the CMAG."

He was referring to a meeting of the CMAG that took place earlier this year and which was examining whether the democratic processes in the Maldives had broken down.

India was part of the three-member CMAG team that visited the Maldives in February.

“If the CMAG were to recommend suspension from the Commonwealth and it is endorsed by the grouping, it means the country is censured by the group," said S.D. Muni, a former professor of political science from the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states, most of which were former British colonies, and aims to promote development, democracy and peace.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the grouping, which holds a summit every two to three years.

In his comments, Modi said India was ready to protect its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region—a key passage for global trade and energy.

India, he said, would extend all possible assistance to the Maldives, given that the strategic interests of the two countries were interlinked, Modi said.

The Prime Minister also said India will speed up the infrastructure projects that it had undertaken in the Maldives—with the seeming aim to stem the increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives. According to news reports, the Maldives main airport is being developed by a Chinese contractor.

The iHaven project, identified as something for India to participate in, is a key scheme in President Yameen’s economic programme. It has six main goals, including developing an airport, a harbour, bunkering services, real estate, shopping malls, and resorts in the atoll.

“We are conscious of the security needs of the Maldives; President Yameen agreed that the Maldives will be sensitive to our strategic and security interests. It is clear that the contours of India-Maldives relations are defined by our shared strategic, security, economic and developmental goals," Modi said.

On the defence pact, the Prime Minister said that the “prompt implementation of a concrete action plan in the defence sector will strengthen our defence cooperation. Development of ports, continuous training, capacity building, supply of equipment and maritime surveillance will be its main elements".

On his part, Yameen underlined his country’s “India first policy" and described India as an important friend. This is in contrast to the past when Yameen signed up for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Route initiative. The passage of a controversial land acquisition law by Parliament that allowed foreigners who invested more than $1 billion to own land in perpetuity, provided 70% of it is reclaimed from the Indian Ocean, also cast a shadow over relations with India.

The apprehension in New Delhi was that China—which has been engaged in land reclamation in the South China Sea to assert its position in maritime disputes with its South-East Asian neighbours—could set up military bases in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

But with Monday’s pact, the two countries seemed to have unveiled a new chapter in ties.

Close