Maldives’ envoy to India sees ‘economic merit’ in FTA with China

The Maldives’s envoy to India reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the ‘India First Policy’. He also said that an anti-Modi editorial published earlier this week had been withdrawn.


Dhairya Maheshwari

Ambassador of Maldives to India, Ahmed Mohamed, has dismissed concerns that bilateral relations between the two countries have hit a rocky patch, as the current government of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom cosies up to China.

A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Maldives and China concluded in November raised hackles in New Delhi, with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson, Raveesh Kumar, reminding the island country of its stated commitment to the “India First” Policy. The FTA was China’s second with a South Asian country, after Pakistan, and is viewed as a sign of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, which has traditionally been seen as India’s backyard.

Further concerns were raised by the Maldivian opposition over Yameen government’s hardline approach towards India after the suspension of three councillors who had held an “unauthorised” meeting with New Delhi’s Ambassador to Male Akhilesh Mishra.

An editorial in a pro-President newspaper earlier this week was scathing in its criticism of India. The same write-up billed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “Hindu-extremist,” sparking a diplomatic protest from New Delhi.

In an emailed interview with National Herald, Maldives Ambassador revealed that the anti-Modi editorial stood withdrawn.

The diplomat, however, defended his country’s decision to sign an FTA with China, stating that the government would go ahead with any international initiative if there was economic merit for the Maldives.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

1. In your view, is a Free Trade Agreement with China the greatest concern that's causing friction between India and Maldives?

At the onset, let me say that there is no friction between India and Maldives. About the FTA, there seems to be an environment of psychosis that has been created because of a lot of misinformation being reported. In today's global economic scenario, FTA's are one of the strongest tools of economic diplomacy. It is unfortunate that some disgruntled politicians and self-appointed diplomacy experts have voiced unfounded concerns on the Maldivian-China FTA.

2. A recent editorial in Maldivian media criticised the current Indian dispensation and India's PM as 'Hindu extremist' and 'anti-Muslim'. How have bilateral relations between the Maldives and India been since the current government came to power?

There are a few things that the editorial and subsequent events confirm about Maldives. First, that there is freedom of the press.

Second, as we speak, the said editorial stands withdrawn because of public opinion. The third being that the Maldivian Media Council has taken cognisance of this and is working on guidelines for media reporting that could threaten national security and bilateral relations. All these prove that Maldives has an inherent system of checks and balances, and the institutions are sensitive to public opinion.

The Maldives continues to reaffirm its commitment to the ‘India First’ policy. India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links steeped in antiquity and enjoy cordial and multi-dimensional relations. India and Maldives signed six agreements in different sectors in April 2016 to boost bilateral relations between both maritime neighbouring countries. These agreements were inked after comprehensive talks between visiting Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi in New Delhi. These agreements include cooperation in counter-terrorism, defence cooperation and conservation of heritage sites to name a few.

3. There are concerns in India that Maldives' blossoming relations with China are coming at the expense of its bilateral relations with India. How would you address these allegations?

Indo-Maldivian relations are time-tested. India is Maldives’ closest neighbour and has always been the first to respond whenever Maldives has faced any crisis. Having said that, His Excellency President Yameen is committed to the economic development of the Maldives. As part of this commitment, the country is open to all development proposals that are in sync with the laws of the country.

Both India and China have strategic roles to play towards this economic development. This engagement will be in consonance with Maldives Foreign Policy Principles that states ‘Friendship with all countries based on mutual respect’. Moreover, one of the Foreign Policy Goals of the government is ‘Increase the economic resilience of the Maldives’. The Maldives will participate in any international initiative if there is economic merit for the country.

4. In view of the Maldivian leadership, what's lacking from the Indian side that is keeping the relations between the two countries frosty?

Firstly, the relationship is not at all frosty. Maldives has always considered India as a valued partner in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood and reiterated that India-Maldives ties are built on a very strong foundation and is independent of relations that the Maldives and/or India have with other countries.

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Published: 24 Dec 2017, 8:38 AM