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President Ram Nath Kovind with Maldives foreign minister Abdulla Shahid in Delhi on Tuesday. PTI
President Ram Nath Kovind with Maldives foreign minister Abdulla Shahid in Delhi on Tuesday. PTI

Maldives says won’t play New Delhi against Beijing

Maldivian foreign minister says nation looks to India for support in key infra projects

New Delhi: The government in the Maldives headed by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih will not play India and China against each other, a senior Maldivian minister said Tuesday, adding the new administration is committed to reigniting bilateral ties between the two countries.

“I would like to assure the government and the people of India of the importance that the new administration of President Solih attaches to Maldives-India relations," foreign minister Abdulla Shahid told reporters at the end of a four-day visit to India.

The Maldives is looking to India to take the lead in key infrastructure projects in the atoll nation, besides offering the country budgetary support and a more beneficial currency swap agreement, said two other ministers. The three ministers—Shahid, finance minister Ibrahim Ameer and economic development minister Fayyaz Ismail—are in New Delhi to prepare for Solih’s 17 December visit to India, his first to a foreign country after the election victory.

Finance minister Ameer said he has sought an increase in the amount and roll-over time for a $200 million currency swap facility and immediate budgetary support of $250-350 million. The two agreements are expected to be clinched during Solih’s visit. Ameer said the new Maldivian government was still in the process of finding out the exact amount of debt owed to China.

“India is our closest and most-trusted friend and neighbour. We are committed to reigniting the India-Maldives friendship," said Shahid.

The comments come against the backdrop of a history of strained India-Maldives ties thanks to Solih’s predecessor Abdulla Yameen moving closer to China—signing up for Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, giving priority to Chinese companies for infrastructure projects and obtaining speedy clearance for a free trade agreement with China. Yameen was defeated in the 23 September elections in the Maldives that threw up Solih as the surprise winner. Ties between India and the Maldives have been on an upswing since then.

In his remarks, Shahid said many Indian projects which have been stalled during Yameen’s tenure would continue. Under Yameen, the Maldivian government had insisted that India withdraw two Indian helicopters stationed in the Maldives for patrols—a source of friction with India. The present Solih administration was seeking their continued presence, said Shahid. “President Yameen when he was in office tried to play China against India and India against China. He thought he could become a puppet master," he said. “Our country will not play one country against another. We have a very strong India First policy."

But Shahid made clear that China is a friend and the Maldives would continue to engage with Beijing. A free trade pact with China that was hurriedly passed by the Maldivian parliament would be reviewed, Shahid said, contradicting earlier reports that the Solih government would cancel it.

When asked what support the new Maldivian government was seeking from India, economic development minister Ismail said it was looking to India for immediate help to tide over budgetary constraints. “We have received very positive feedback from the Indian government.... we are looking at India to engage with us on the diversification of our economy... we have lot of infrastructure development, development of ports, airports, harbours, basic necessities like water and sanitation, tourism, the establishment of industries like the transshipment port that we are looking at."

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