Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

20 October 2020

Maldives’ minister calls into question Free Trade Agreement with China

(lm) Speaking on a program aired by the state radio station, Maldives’ economic minister called into question the country’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, saying the agreement should not have been signed in the first place as it may hamper trade relations with other countries, notably India. Refuting the minister’s statement, China’s Ambassador to Maldives declared that the FTA is of ‘mutual benefit and high-quality’, adding that ‘it conforms to international practice and will lift the economic and trade ties to new level.’ [The Economic Times] [The Edition 1]

Notwithstanding the economic minister’s statement, China and Maldives engaged in discussions on Thursday, to explore bilateral economic cooperation in a post-COVID-19 environment. [The Edition 2]

The contentious agreement was signed between then-President Abdulla Yameen and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during the former’s first state visit to Beijing in December 2017. At the time, Beijing was embarking on its grand Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and therefore, financed several major projects during Yameen’s five-year tenure [see e.g. AiR No. 39, September/2019, 4].

Following his election victory in November 2018, incumbent President Ibrahim Solih quickly moved to normalize relations with New Delhi, returning to the Maldives’ traditional ‘India First’ policy [see e.g. AiR (2/6/2019)]. In this context, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first overseas trip after his re-election to the Maldives. It was also during that time that members of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party for the first time openly questioned the FTA [see AiR (4/11/2018)].

In a bid to counter China ’s growing financial footprint in South Asia, New Delhi-backed infrastructure projects are currently being implemented at a fast pace. Further, India has provided a host of support measures to the Indian Ocean archipelago to mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic [see e.g. AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4].

20 October 2020

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit Sri Lanka, Maldives after Delhi talks later this month

(lm/ng) Against the backdrop of further Chinese advancements [see above], a highly-anticipated Colombo visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assumes added significance. Pompeo was previously scheduled to come to Sri Lanka in June 2019 but the visit had to be cancelled over concern about growing sentiments against a proposed American military base on the island.

Pompeo, who will visit Sri Lanka en route to New Delhi in the coming weeks [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], will presumably press Colombo on the pending US proposal on the $480 million Compact of the ‘Millennium Challenge Cooperation’ (MCC) [see AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5] and a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Washington has been pressuring Colombo since July 2019 to renew its SOFA, which allows visa-free movement of US security and defense personnel in and out of Sri Lanka. [The Indian Express] [South Asia Journal]

Significantly, Sri Lanka has not hosted a high-level United States’ diplomat since John Kerry’s visit in 2015 – a clear sign that the United States regards Sri Lanka – situated just north of the main naval trade routes across the Indian Ocean that serve as China’s economic lifeline – as a crucial part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Still, the Sri Lankan government may not bend to the United States on the issue of the MCC or the SOFA as both agreements have come under heavy flak from Sri Lankan nationalists. [The Diplomat]

Indicating how closely Washington monitors political developments on the island, the US Department of Defense in its annual report to Congress last month named Sri Lanka as one of the countries where Beijing ‘is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces.’ [US Department of Defense]

13 October 2020

Maldives: Quota for women not unconstitutional?

(lm) The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) argued in the Maldives’ High Court that establishing a quota for women in local councils isn’t unconstitutional or constitutes an instance of gender discrimination. Previously, a constitutional motion had been filed with the High Court, challenging the constitutionality of a provision of the 2019 Decentralization Act which stipulated a quota for local council seats to provide equal opportunity for women. [SunOnline]

Initially, the AGO confirmed that a quota potentially constitutes a violation of Article 17 (b) of the Constitution which guarantees equal opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups. The High Court will hold one more hearing in the case before issuing its ruling.

6 October 2020

Japan, Maldives sign COVID-19 emergency support loan

(lm) The Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA) signed on Wednesday a $47.5 million loan agreement with the Maldives, marking Japan’s largest concessional loan extended to the island nation in history. The same day, the governments of the two countries signed an Exchange of Notes, which is a precursor to the signing of a formal Loan Agreement. Taken together, the two agreements signed on Wednesday are designed to facilitate a COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loan. [The Edition] []

22 September 2020

India provides Maldives US$250 million loan to boost coronavirus-battered economy

(lm) In a further bid to counter China ’s growing financial footprint in South Asia, India on Sunday provided a soft loan of $250 million to the government of the Maldives to mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest in a string of support measures for the Indian Ocean archipelago, the budgetary support was provided in response to a request by Maldives President Ibrahim Solih to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for assistance. [Hindustan Times]

The financial aid, first announced during a virtual meeting between the foreign ministers of both countries on August 13, will be raised through a sale of treasury bonds issued by the Maldives government to the State Bank of India (SBI), with 10 years given for repayment, according India’s High Commission in the Maldives. [South China Morning Post]

During the meeting, India had also pledged $500 million towards funding the largest civilian infrastructure in the Maldives to help the island nation connect its capital with the neighboring islands of Villingili, Gulhifahu and Thilafushi [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3].

Further, a direct cargo ferry service between India and the Maldives –first promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Maldives in June last year [see AiR (2/6/2019)] – was formally launched on Monday. [United News of India]

15 September 2020

Maldives, US sign defense agreement

(lm) Representatives of the US and the Maldives signed on September 10 the “Framework for U.S. Department of Defense-Maldives Ministry of Defence Defense and Security Relationship” which sets forth an “intent to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean”, according to a US Defense Department press release. Although it does not contain too many operational details but rather provides broad strokes on the areas of convergence, the bilateral US-Maldives framework agreement brings the archipelago firmly into the ‘Indo-Pacific’ side of the emerging geopolitical maritime fault line pitting the US and its allies against China. [Department of Defense] [South Asia Monitor]

India had opposed Washington’s proposal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Maldives in 2013, in an effort to curb attempts by extra-regional powers to extend their strategic footprint in parts of the Indian ocean that New Delhi considered its distinct sphere of influence. There has been no official response from India yet, but, in a sign of the changed dynamics in the region, New Delhi reportedly welcomed the agreement. Noteworthy, Washington’s decision to deepen military ties with the Maldives was reportedly taken in consultation with New Delhi, which has also recently strengthened its strategic ties with the Maldives, pledging $500 million towards funding the largest civilian infrastructure in the island nation this August [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2]. [The Diplomat]

India-Maldives relations have grown considerably warmer since President Ibrahim Solih took power following an electoral victory over hitherto-President Abdulla Yameen in November 2018, with India’s “Neighborhood First” policy finding afresh resonance in the Maldives’ return to its traditional “India First” policy [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. Still, the Maldives government is currently facing a sustained campaign from the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-People’s National Congress (PNC) alliance, to corner it on defense relations with India. Last Sunday, the Maldives chief of defense forces held a press conference where he categorically asserted that “no foreign armed forces are present” in the archipelago. [The Edition] [The Hindu] [The Wire]

15 September 2020

Maldives: Over 40 arrested at opposition rally

(lm) At a rally that was jointly organized by the two parties of the opposition coalition, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), police on Saturday arrested a large number of protesters, citing participants’ failure to exercise social distancing measures and wear face masks. On Sunday, all individuals, except one, were released. [Avas] [The Edition 1]

Opposition protesters took to the streets their concerns over the incumbent administration “selling off Maldives”, calling for the release of former President Abdulla Yameen who currently serves a five-year jail sentence on money laundering charges. Claiming that Mr. Yameen was the “solution” for the country’s issues, demonstrators also called for incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s resignation. [The Edition 2]

18 August 2020

India funds major infrastructure project in the Maldives

(ls) In a bid to foster its relations with the Maldives, India committed itself to fund the largest civilian infrastructure project in the island country. The Greater Male Connectivity Project consists of bridges and causeways linking the capital Male to three neighbouring islets. The overall funding from India amounts to $500m (a grant of $100m and a credit of $400m). 

The project has about three times the size of the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, completed under former President Abdulla Yameen. After President Ibrahim Solih took power following the defeat of Yameen in elections in November 2018, the bridge has been renamed into Sinamalé Bridge. Yameen was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to five years in prison last year. [Al Jazeera]

India-Maldives relations have significantly improved since Solih came to office, with the India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy finding resonance in the Maldives’ return to its traditional “India First” policy. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first international visit was to the Maldives after coming to power for his second term in May last year. He was also the only head of state to attend Maldivian President Solih’s swearing-in ceremony in November 2018. [The Print]

Still, Maldivian Foreign Minister Shahid said that China would “continue to remain an important economic and bilateral development partner of the Maldives”. The country, which depends heavily on tourism, saw about 280,000 out of 1.7 million tourists last year from China. [Straits Times]

21 July 2020

Maldives: Government criticized for restrictions on protests 

(dql) Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized the Maldives for restricting protests in violation of human rights, adding that new regulations threaten civil society groups which support peaceful protests.

HRW’s critic comes on the heels of first, a declaration of the Maldivian Ministry of Home Affairs last week according to which street protests, marches, parades, and other gatherings can only be held with prior written approval by Maldives Police Service, and second, a statement of the Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment Ministry warning nongovernmental organizations that they should abstain from supporting “actions that are detrimental to national security and national interests.”

Both Ministries’ decisions are responses to a number protests staged in July, including marches by exploited expatriate workers demanding unpaid wages, child and women rights groups, as well as by the opposition coalition. [HRW] [The Edition]

7 April 2020

Maldives: Potentials of a coming ISIS hotspot? 

(jk) With the highest per capita number of foreign fighters (“250 fighters, and about 1400 alleged radicalised individuals, out of a population of 350,000”) around the world and an ongoing issue of “returning fighters” with setbacks for ISIS in the Middle East, there have long been fears the Maldives might become a hotspot for terrorists. A stabbing incident of three tourists earlier this year brought such fears to the forefront after the incident was linked to ISIS affiliated terror. [Daily Mail] Further reasons that warrant a watchful eye on developments are the fact  that the country already has a fundamentalist fringe in its society, powerful hard-line Islamist groups [e.g. Asia in Review No. 46, November/2019, 2], and allegedly little capacities dedicated to de-radicalisation. [Eurasia Review


17 December 2019

India and Maldives foreign ministers agree in closer cooperation on Indo-Pacific security

(ls) Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid met his counterpart S. Jaishankar on Friday for the first India-Maldives Joint Commission to be held in four years. The meeting mainly dealt with defense and security cooperation as well as the Greater Male Area Connectivity project. Both sides also agreed to work towards an increase of Indian investments and tourists to the Maldives. [Times of India]

In an interview with The Hindu, Maldives Foreign Minister Shahid laid out foreign policy elements. Inter alia, he said, “for us, the freedom of navigation, the total concept of the Indo-Pacific strategy is paramount, and we are fully part of it. In Washington this year, I assured Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that we will play our role as the heart of the Indian Ocean.” [The Hindu]

10 December 2019

Maldives: New Chief Justice for overhauled Supreme Court 

(jk) The parliament in Male confirmed President Soliih’s nominee, Muthasim Adnan as new chief justice. Adnan was removed former President Yameen’s regime in 2014 (UN OHCHR:2014). [Edition

The new parliament has now removed all five Justices inherited from the Yameen administration with the last justice leaving office last week. [The Maldives Independent]

3 December 2019

Maldives: Ex-president Yameen sentenced to five years in prison

(ls) Former Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen has been found guilty of money-laundering by a criminal court. The 60-year-old opposition leader was fined US$5 million and sentenced to five years in prison, the minimum jail term stipulated in the 2014 anti-money laundering law. Yameen had served from 2013 to 2018. During his tenure, several opponents were exiled and jailed. A famous critic/blogger was killed. [Maldives Independent]

During the five years that Yameen was president, the relationship between the Maldives and India deteriorated because of Yameen’s favorable stance toward China which invested millions of dollars in the archipelago. After Yameen’s tenure ended, relations between India and Maldives have improved. [Indian Express]

12 November 2019

Maldives: Human Rights NGO banned over anti-Islamic report

(jk) The Maldives government that had “temporarily” shut down the country’s leading human rights organization, the Maldives Democracy Network (MDN), recently [Asia in Review No. 42, October/2019, 3] has now decided to fully ban the MDN.

The group had been criticised by hard-line Islamist groups, claiming that it had insulted Islam when it published a report on radicalisation on its website a few years ago, which has now been confirmed by the Islamic ministry and police the police. The NGO dissolution follows from breaking the 2003 associations law prohibiting NGOs from contradicting tenets of Islam or undermining religious unity. [Maldives Independent]

15 October 2019

Maldives: Government shuts down human rights organisation

(jk) The Maldives government “temporarily” shut down the country’s leading human rights organization, the Maldives Democracy Network (MDN) in order to maintain “public order and communal harmony.” The group had been under pressure from critics, in particular hard-line Islamist groups, claiming that it had insulted Islam when it published a report on radicalisation on its website back in 2015. [Human Rights Watch]

24 September 2019

The Maldives’s renewed partnership with China in the spotlight

(ls) The Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid met Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his first official visit to China. The meeting demonstrates the importance of the Maldives as a partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Under the former president Abdulla Yameen, the Maldives forged a close partnership with China, which financed key developmental projects. The current administration came to power after criticizing the mounting debt owed to China and quickly moved to repair relations with India. [Maldives Independent]

The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party fears the debts to China could run as high as $3 billion and risk sinking the economy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted that the Maldives are not caught in a debt trap and that China’s cooperation with the Maldives aims to promote the well-being of the Maldivian people, without political intentions and without seeking geopolitical interests. [Reuters]

24 September 2019

Maldives becomes signatory to New York Convention

(ls) The Maldives has become a signatory to the UN Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, also known as the New York Convention. As a party to the convention, Maldivian courts will be obliged to recognize and enforce arbitration awards determined in other states. The Maldives became the 161st nation to sign the convention and will need to ratify it after enacting a new law. [Maldives Independent]

10 September 2019

Indian Ocean Conference in the Maldives

(ls) The fourth Indian Ocean Conference 2019 took place this week in the Maldives. It was also attended by the Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesighe, Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The focal points of the conference were marine ecology, terrorism and navigational security. [The Edition]

On the sidelines of the conference, India and the Maldives signed a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) on criminal matters with the objective to enhance effectiveness in investigation and prosecution of crime through cooperation. India will also assist the Maldivian government against growing Islamist radicalization and institutionalized corruption that gathered momentum during the previous Yameen regime. [Asia Times]

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday addressed the Maldives parliament during his official visit to the country. Several agreements of cooperation in visa facilitation, water supply, youth development, vocational training, higher education and social empowerment were signed on the occasion. The Maldives is the third largest export destination for Sri Lanka among South Asian nations after India and Pakistan. [Maldives Independent]

03 September 2019

Maldives: Commission finds that former president Yameen covered up Al-Qaeda murders

(ls) In the Maldives, the Presidential Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances has concluded that three persons, including a well-known journalist, were killed by Bilad-al-Sham, a local extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda. The commission found that the previous government under president Abdulla Yameen covered up the murders. The group is also responsible for the assassination of a moderate legislator in 2012 and two liberal bloggers in 2012 and 2017. [Straits Times]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

2 July 2019

EU and Maldives to enhance cooperation, Maldivian FM visiting Russia

(jk) The Maldives and the EU have agreed to hold annual meetings at senior officials’ level to enhance cooperation. The EU recently lifted the framework for restrictive measures against Maldives which it had adopted for targeted sanctions against the Maldives in response to a deterioration of internal politics during the first half of 2018. The recent decision to enhance cooperation reflects both the growing importance of the Maldives in a greater geopolitical pictures, as well as recognising the incumbent administration’s “commitment to consolidating democracy, ensuring good governance and strengthening the rule of law.” [The Edition; Business Recorder]

In addition to the relations to the EU, the Maldivian Foreign Minister has also become the first Foreign Minister of the Republic of Maldives to visit Russia in his official capacity. [Modern Diplomacy]

11  June 2019

“Neighborhood First”: Indian PM Modi visits Maldives and Sri Lanka

(ls) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first overseas trip since being elected to a second term by travelling to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, reflecting the importance India attaches to its ‘Neighborhood First” policy.

In the Maldives, Modi and Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih signed six Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) in the fields of hydrography, health, passenger and cargo services by sea, customs capacity building, training of civil servants and the sharing of white shipping information between the Indian Navy and the Maldives National Defence Force. In March, the countries had signed a USD 800 million Line of Credit Agreement for assisting the Maldives to achieve sustainable social and economic development. [Business Today]

Modi also inaugurated a coastal radar system and military training center in the Maldives. The two leaders pledged to combat piracy, terrorism, organized crime and trafficking through “coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information, and capacity building.” [Al Arabiya]

Solih reaffirmed his government’s “India first policy” and pledged full support toward deepening “the multifaceted, mutually beneficial partnership between India and the Maldives”. Solih’s stand was a marked shift from his predecessor Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who developed close ties with Beijing. [South China Morning Post]

In Sri Lanka, Modi started his short visit by paying respect at one of the sites of the Easter Sunday attack. He said that he was confident Sri Lanka will rise again and cowardly acts of terror cannot defeat their spirit. [India Today] During his Maldives visit, Modi had already called for a global conference to tackle the threat of terrorism in the region and around the world. “The international community has actively arranged for global convention and many conferences on the threat of climate change. Why not on the issue of terrorism?” he said. [Reuters]

19 March 2019

Maldives: Parts of ruling coalition breaks with Soli over parliamentary polls

(jk) The Jumhooree Party (JP), one in the four-party ruling coalition headed by President Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party, has declared support for predecessor Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and People’s National Congress (PNC) nominees in some 32 constituencies in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In turn, the PPM-PNC coalition would back the nominees of JP for 37 seats. The deal applies to constituencies in which JP and PPM-PNC do not face each other. The deal is being criticised as the government does not wish any part of their coalition to support any allies of former President Yameen who is currently in prison.  JP itself is not fully behind the move, as a number of high-ranking JP politicians including the country’s Vice-President, Transport Minister, Tourism Minister and Environment Minister have declared allegiance to President Solih. [Maldives Independent 1, Maldives Independent 2]