Strategic geography defines the geo-strategic importance of Maldives far beyond its physical size. Despite being the smallest Asian country with a land area of just 300 sq. km. and a population of around 480,000, Maldives is one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries straddling a 960-km-long submarine ridge running north to south and which forms a wall in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Located at the southern and northern parts of this island chain are the only two passages through which ships can pass safely. Both these sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) are critical for maritime trade flow between the Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Hormuz in West Asia and the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia. While the Indian Ocean is considered as the key highway for global trade and energy flow, Maldives virtually stands as a toll gate.
As maritime economic activity in the Indian Ocean has risen dramatically in recent decades, the geopolitical competition too in the Indian Ocean has intensified. Maldives plays a key role in this geopolitical competition due to her strategic maritime geography. China’s strategic interests and logistical limitations in the Indian Ocean have prompted it to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. Maldives is adjacent to the main regional shipping routes, making it an important Indian Ocean toehold. In July 2015, when Maldives amended its constitution to allow foreign ownership of land, there were speculations about China trying to develop “strategic assets” in the archipelago. Given the uncertain dynamics of Sino-Indian relation, China’s potential strategic presence in Maldives remains a concern.
A favourable and positive maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is essential for the fulfilment of India’s developmental priority. Thus, India continuously aims at promoting an ever-expanding area of peace and stability around it. While SLOCs in the vicinity of the Maldives have broader strategic significance for global maritime trade, these are of vital importance for India since nearly 50 per cent of India’s external trade and 80 per cent of her energy imports transit these westward SLOCs in the Arabian Sea. In addition, Maldives is an important partner in India’s role as the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region.
While India-Maldives relations have always been close, cordial and multi-dimensional, recent regime instability in the Maldives had posed some limitations. Fortunately, the resilient democratic process in the Maldives has withstood this short term challenge. In accordance with the “Neighbourhood First” policy of the government, India remains a committed development partner for a stable, prosperous and peaceful Maldives. This is best demonstrated by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen to first visit Maldives, and that too right at the beginning of his second term.