Statement by H E Abdulla Shahid, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives at the India Today Conclave - South

NEIGHBOURHOOD NAVIGATION The Common Water: Old Ties, New Strategies”

Statement by H E Abdulla Shahid, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives at the India Today Conclave - South Chennai, India 13 March 2021

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you very much for that generous introduction. I wish to thank India Today for this opportunity to speak on this esteemed panel on a topic that is of keen interest to me and many persons around this room, as well as, the world.

It is very good to be back in Chennai. I was last here in 2019 and I feel that a lifetime has gone since then, with COVID19 bringing our lives to a halt for the larger part of last year. But I am glad we are slowly returning to normal – or rather, the new normal.

Certainly, Covid19 has been an immensely difficult time for us all. For those of you familiar with Male’, the capital city of the Maldives will know it is a small island that never sleeps. But for many weeks last year, there was an eerie silence on the roads of Male’, broken occasionally by sirens. For many weeks, our beaches stayed empty, our resorts, empty. For a country that depends on tourism, this was devastating. The economic impact, the social impact was devastating.

But at last, there is hope. As of last night, over 35% of our population has received the first dose of the Covid vaccine. Number of Covid cases still are high – but the initial panic of an year ago, when we didn’t know much about the virus nor the treatment, and when the world over, we faced difficulties in accessing medicine, supplies and food, is not there.

A large part of our resilience building has been due to the unwavering support of our international partners. And India, is, as it has always been, our first, and best responder. From assisting in the evacuation of our nationals from Wuhan, when the pandemic started, to the supply of essential medicines, as well as deployment of Rapid Response Teams in the early days of the pandemic, supported our initial responses.

Operation Sanjeevani launched in April 2020, helped to airlift 6.2 tonnes of medicines and equipment procured by the Government, and stuck in various parts of India due to border closures. And in May 2020, INS Kesari, which was deployed to the Indian Ocean region on “Misson Sagar”, and travelled over 7500 nautical miles, over 55 days - delivered 600 tons of food items to the Maldives, as its first port of call. Financial assistance of $250million was also extended to the Maldives through investment by SBI in Maldives Government Bonds, to support the economic recovery from Covid.

The Maldives and India have also established an Air Travel Bubble – the first in South Asia – and one that has led India Today to declare “The Bollywood’s Maldives Takeover”. India tourists now make up the number one source market for Maldivian tourist at 23% - an all time record for India.

Our vaccination programme began with 200,000 doses of vaccines gifted by India. And I know that such is the case with many of the countries in this region and beyond. Not only with vaccines, but during the pandemic as well, India’s helping hand was extended to all the countries in the Indian Ocean, in the Neighbourhood.

“‘Neighbourhood First’ is our priority…from time immemorial, the blue waters have washed our shores. They have also nourished our cultures and civilisations” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, spoke these words, at the Maldivian Parliament, the People’s Majlisi in 2019, when he visited the Maldives on his first foreign visit abroad in his second term.

Combined with the policy of maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean “Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR)”, India’s regional diplomacy with “Old Ties” in this “Common Water” has expanded into new dimensions. And offered new opportunities.

The ocean that connects the countries of South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region – the Indian Ocean – in the last few decades has become the highway for global maritime trade. Facilitating economic and social advancement at a rate unprecedented in the human history.

And with these changes, over the recent years, we have seen changes – positive changes – in many of the countries of this region. Governance challenges remain, Development challenges remain. But there are hopeful signs too. This region is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. But the strengthening democratic architecture and values, including the holding of elections and democratically elected leaders, offers the most opportunity.

The region has a history of instability and undemocratic governments leading to civil unrest, and bad governance. We will not dwell on it. But, arguably, the region is more stable and democratic than it has been in decades. Violence and unrest have subsided. Militaries have left the streets. Major insurgencies have been contained.

In my own country, the Maldives, on 17 September 2018, we elected Ibrahim Mohamed Solih with an overwhelming majority. On 17 November 2018, he took office promising to end corruption, foster good governance, and to protect the country’s democracy, values and the environment for future generations.

In our neighbouring Sri Lanka, two and a half decades of civil war came to an end in 2009, bringing the promise of stability, peace and ultimately progress. In Afghanistan, a country torn apart by terrorism, and years of conflict, President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts towards preserving the gains of the last 20 years, in entrenching democracy and protecting the fundamental rights of all sections of society, are noteworthy.

Democracies don’t fight with each other – is the common mantra. The promise of democratic peace, offers plenty of opportunities for development and for cooperation. And I think this provides for a strong opportunity for regional diplomacy – in building and strengthening institutions. Institutions that will foster a multilateral, regional approach in maintaining order in the Indian Ocean.

A collaborate approach to maintaining a rules based, inclusive order in the Indian Ocean is key – one that brings all the countries of the region together. Recent developments, such as IORA’s Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and the Galle Dialogue, are encouraging signs of strong commitment towards establishing a formal set of mechanisms for a multilateral approach in maintaining order in the Indian Ocean Region.

The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and the Galle Dialogue have proven to be important platforms, bringing together policy makers, naval officers, and practitioners from the Indian Ocean countries and beyond. The Galle Dialogue is an important avenue for building confidence, sharing information, and its host Sri Lanka has a lot of important lessons to share on maritime security.

The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium has also emerged as an avenue for policy coordination. IORA’s Working Group has the promise to become the institutional space for collaboration, developing a common vision of a rules-based order in the region, to deal with maritime security matters. This could include non-traditional threats such as transnational organised crime, piracy, drug trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling, arms smuggling, and disaster risks.

Central to all these initiatives is the key role that India plays in creating an atmosphere for building confidence. India inspires and leads the development of these mechanisms into strong and credible institutions that can foster regional peace and security, and ensure coordination and collaboration, in an effort to uphold order, and peace in the Indian Ocean.

The relationship between the Maldives and India is stronger than ever. It is strong, because of our shared values, history, and perspectives. It is so, because India is the first to respond with external support in any crisis. Whether it is foreign terrorist mercenaries like in 1988, or in humanitarian emergencies as we saw in the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2014, or most recently during Covid, as I discussed earlier. But our relationship is strong also, because it is the hinge of stability in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives is the heart of the Indian Ocean. The major sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean go through the Maldives. Nearly 100,000 vessels pass through the Indian Ocean every year. This is equal to almost 10 billion tonnes of cargo, including 36 million barrels of oil per day – more than 65 percent of the world’s oil trade.

This undoubtedly makes the Maldives an important link in global trade, in addressing global challenges, where continuous stability in the Indian Ocean is fundamental for the security of the Maldives. And indeed, a stronger, prosperous, democratic, and a politically stable Maldives is necessary for the security of the Indian Ocean.

And this is why the Maldives-India partnership continues to remain integral to the stability of maritime security in the Indian Ocean. And why we will continue to invest in it.

It is also why we remain engaged, and invested in regional arrangements that strengthen protect and uphold freedom of navigation, and work collaboratively to cultivate partnerships that are based on mutual trust, and mutual respect.

The Maldives believes that any approach we – the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean - collectively adopt should be based on collaboration, and cooperation, where all countries – small and big – can contribute to maintaining order in the Indian Ocean. I thank you.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Fathulla Jameel Building, Malé, 20077, Republic of Maldives, | Tel Number: 00960 332-3400  |  Emergency Contact: 00960 798-3400