Development, International relations, National security | South Asia, Australia, Asia

2 June 2021

Australia can further its strategic engagement with Maldives to the benefit of the whole Indo-Pacific, Athaulla Rasheed writes.

Maldives is South Asia’s maritime ‘tollgate’, and while India has long occupied a dominant role in terms of its development, recent strategic inroads in Maldives from outside powers like the United States and Japan have been welcomed by India as a positive step towards creating stability in the Indian Ocean.

As Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) partners, India, Japan, the United States, and Australia are coming together in the region to protect common values and interests and curb China’s growing economic influence in Indo-Pacific maritime territories.

In this context, Australia should do its part strategically to help Maldives build further political confidence. This will promote the kind of regional development co-operation that should underpin the Indo-Pacific.

Located within a hub of commercial sea‐lanes running through Indian Ocean, Maldives can be valuable to the Quad and a significant strategic buffer against regional maritime threats.

As a small and low-lying island state though, it faces many development challenges and vulnerabilities to external threats, including global crises, climate change, and violent extremism.

This makes it dependent on allies such as India to support its development and political stability, which has been a key partner in supporting Maldives’ development on both the domestic and international fronts.

More on this: India is making inroads in Maldives, but China stays on top

The reason Maldives enhanced its partnerships with China in recent years, especially from 2014 to 2018, was not because it wanted to walk away from traditional ties with India. In fact, Maldives maintained its ‘India First’ policy even as it embarked on development projects and investments run by China.

Instead, what drove a growth in Maldives-China relations was shared political thinking between the former President of Maldives Abdulla Yameen and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who both wanted to promote development co-operation that did not impose conditions on their countries’ internal affairs.

Yameen’s government secured autonomous political authority and avoided international best practices as it aligned with China, and in 2016, his government withdrew Maldives from the Commonwealth to avoid international pressure over his government’s alleged rights abuses – though membership was reinstated after 2018 election.

Now, as a result of loose government decisions and insufficient oversight, Maldives owes nearly $5 billion to China.

Maldives-China relations have been in reverse since Yameen’s exit in November 2018, as the newly elected president of Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih sought to revitalise the India First policy by opening multiple avenues of development and strategic co-operation between the two countries.

More on this: National Security Podcast: Hon Mariya Didi, Minister of Defence of the Republic of Maldives

As India’s commitments expand, broader levels of co-operation from like-minded partners are also needed to bring balance to Maldives’ development landscape. This can help reduce political uncertainty around India’s enhanced military co-operation domestically and secure Maldives’ role in Indo-Pacific. This is where Australia can step in.

Australia claims to value partnership and collaborative efforts in upholding, promoting, and strengthening international best practice in countries that are vulnerable and prone to attract foreign influence when it comes to their development. By investing in helping Maldives’ development, Australia would be living up to these values. How should it help? While its Quad partners cover strategic and military investments, Australia can focus on government capacity-building in Maldives.

The Australian Government does have an existing relationship with Maldives. It identified itself as the ninth largest source of imports to Maldives in 2017, and in 2018, 134 Maldivians studied in Australia – to date, 639 Maldivians have completed studies in Australia.

Australia also has supported climate adaptation efforts in Maldives – $2 million was contributed to the World Bank-implemented Climate Change Trust Fund in Maldives in 2018.

As an example of the kind of work Australia could do, in 2015-17, a $2.6 million program (which also included Sri Lanka and Mauritius) helped train and improve maritime search capabilities in the Indian Ocean. This kind of expertise sharing would be a good place to start.

In a meeting with Australian High Commissioner David Holly in March 2021, Maldives Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla Shahid brought up the importance of this mutual co-operation, especially in security, human resource development, and climate change.

Defence sector co-operation was also highlighted in a meeting between Holly and Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Didi. While defence co-operation is important in the Indo-Pacific, the COVID-19 situation and the capabilities of Australia’s Quad partners mean Australia may be better suited to helping Maldives build stronger domestic institutions and public confidence in policy choices.

Conventionally, India has rebuffed attempts at a bigger strategic role for its Quad partners in Maldives, but as the Indo-Pacific grows, opportunities for Australia to step in will grow too.

By helping Maldives focus on building better institutions at the domestic level, Australia can shape more effective and transparent policy and help strengthen democracy and trust in government in a country that will be crucial for the future of the Indo-Pacific.

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