Maldives Foreign Minister Asim is in India as a special envoy of President Abdulla Yameen, in what is being seen as a move to mend bilateral ties that have been under scrutiny since Maldives rushed through a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China a month ago.
Minister Asim met with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi today. He also called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indian government reported that both sides had reflected on the close friendly relations between Maldives and India.
It was not disclosed why President Yameen himself is not visiting the country.
India is reportedly uncomfortable with Maldives developing ties with its regional rival. Some experts have said that Maldives signing an FTA with China had taken India by surprise.
The main Opposition Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) led by Former President Mohamed Nasheed raised concern after the FTA was rushed through Parliament in November.
President Abdulla Yameen signed the FTA, Maldives’ first such deal with any country, during his visit to China in December. As per the agreement, China won't impose any taxes on fisheries imports from the island nation, and Maldives will not levy tax on goods imported from China.
What had reportedly surprised India was that the FTA was signed even after President Yameen, during a visit to New Delhi, said that his country would sign such an agreement with India first.
But in a recent interview with The Tribune, Ambassador Ahmed Mohamed denied that Maldives made any such promise, and that Maldives signed the FTA with India’s knowledge.
He also said that it would be better for India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy if Prime Minister Modi visits the Maldives.
PM Modi has not visited the Maldives in the last three-and-half years after he had turned down a visit in March 2015, during a time of political unrest in the island nation.
In the interview, Ambassador Mohamed also said that some requests made to India during President Yameen’s 2014 visit has been neglected, and that “there are requests for which need speedier processing.”
Despite Indian parliamentarians repeatedly raising the topic of the controversial agreement, the Ministry of External Affairs had attested that relations between both countries are “close, cordial, and multi-dimensional”.
Raveesh Kumar, Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, has also dispelled speculation that India has been provoked by a recent article published by Maldives news outlet Vaguthu criticizing India.
In an article published on The Quint, analyst and author Rajeev Sharma accused the Maldives government of having tapped the personal phones of Indian Ambassador to the Maldives Akhilesh Mishra, and other Indian diplomats, which the government denies.
Three local councilors have also been suspended for meeting Ambassador Mishra. Authorities have said it was an unfortunate coincidence, as the meeting took place after the Local Government Authority (LGA) issued a notice to its councilors that they should seek the Ministry of Home Affairs approval first before holding meetings with diplomats.
There have also been reports that India and Maldives are restricting visa services for each others citizens. But both Maldives Immigration and the Indian government have denied any changes to their visa policy.
The media have also reported that Indian authorities have recently cancelled the dependent visas of two parents and ordered their deportation; the reason for the move has still not been disclosed.
While Many Maldivian parents living in India are on dependent visas, Ambassador Ahmed Mohamed has confirmed that the Maldives embassy has been receiving complaints from Maldivians over visa restrictions in India.
But any reported signs of cracks in India and Maldives’ decades-old close relationship have been dismissed by both governments. It might also be too presumptuous to make any conclusions, as no senior official of either country has directly made any criticism.
It is also likely that the Indian government is waiting until the Maldives’ 2018 presidential election. A change in power could mean that Maldives will stop cosying up to China. But if President Yameen wins a new term, his administration will most likely continue to develop ties with Beijing, meaning an increase of Chinese influence in the region.