On 13th August 2020, following a webmeeting between the foreign ministers (FM) of India and Maldives, both parties announced the implementation of the largest project in the history of the Maldives with the support of India. As part of the financial package, India will grant USD 100M and provide a line of credit of USD 400M to Maldives to build causeways and bridges to link the capital Male with three neighboring isles.
The project is billed as a key component of the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP).The 6.7 km bridge will connect the main island and capital city of Male with the seaport of Gulhi Falhu and the Special Economic Zone in Thilafushi. The bridge will also pass by the islet of Villingili, which previously relied solely on ferry services.
Maldivian FM Abdulla Shahid praised the project as the single largest infrastructural endeavor in the history of Maldives. Previously, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge (now renamed as Sinamale Bridge), built with a budget of USD 200M and linking the city centre of Male with the Velana international airport, was the largest ever
project in the idyllic archipelago. Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih commended the event as a « landmark moment in Maldives-India cooperation. »
Maldives has a population of 340,000 and consist of 1,192 islands. It is located in the vicinity of the Palk Strait and is along one of the busiest shipping lanes linking Asia, Middle-East and Europe. In September 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to the Maldives and announced that Maldives is an « important link on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) », especially the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) which aims at enhancing trade and transport connectivity among participating countries.
During 2018 elections, President Ibrahim Solih beat incumbent Yameen and then initiated an « India First » policy while Yameen was generally recognized as « Pro-China ». Since then, Yameen has been sentenced to a 5-year prison term after accusations of embezzlement and awarding juicy contracts at ‘inflated prices.’
An Indian diplomat, who preferred to remain anonymous, referred to the new normal as « a reset in relations ». The Indian side underlined that the flagship project is in line with the « Neighborhood First » policy of India and the larger SAGAR initiative, which aims to achieve Security and Growth for All in the Region.
In the same vein, Indian FM Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also announced the launch of a regular cargo ferry service between India and Maldives to boost bilateral trade. Additionally, Dr Jaishankar talked about the setting up of an “air bubble” between the two countries which will “facilitate movement from both sides for employment, tourism and medical emergencies.” India also pledged another USD 250M to support Maldives in its fight against the coronavirus and to cushion the impact on the tourism industry. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, China was the largest tourism source market to Maldives and it is not clear how things will evolve in the post-pandemic and “India First” era.
From a geostrategic perspective, Maldives was also a key node on the so-called « String of Pearls » which India perceived as a ‘potential military encirclement’ by its rival, China. Therefore, this landmark project is touted as a major victory for Indian diplomacy which has been working hard to maintain primacy in the Indian Ocean, which India views as its “backyard” and traditional « sphere of influence. » Over the years, India has been working hard to build up its « Garland of Flowers » to counterbalance the « String of Pearls. »