India rekindles ties with Maldives visit, amid political unrest

Ms Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs of India, address the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, USA, on Oct 1, 2015.
Ms Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs of India, address the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, USA, on Oct 1, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

(Reuters) - India's foreign minister arrived in the Maldives on Saturday, on a visit expected to revive ties after years of cooler relations during which China asserted its influence.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled a trip to the Maldives earlier this year, after the arrest and contested trial of former president Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader.

However, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj's trip should lay the groundwork for Modi to visit the Indian Ocean nation.

India, which traditionally has strong ties with the Maldives and Sri Lanka, has been concerned about China's growing involvement in the Indian Ocean as it opens its purse strings and builds a network of ports dubbed the String of Pearls.

In September last year, during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Maldives signed a deal with a Chinese company to upgrade its international airport, after cancelling a $511 million deal with India's GMR Infrastructure in 2012.

Swaraj will meet officials including President Abudullah Yameen.

Mohamed Hussain Shareef, minister at the president's office, said recent talks had paved the way for commercial ties: "As always, (it is about) reaffirmation of common values and understanding on issues related to Indian Ocean security."

The Maldives, a small but strategic archipelago in one of the world's busiest shipping routes, has been on edge after a suspected assassination attempt on Yameen late last month.

Yameen, who took power after a bitterly contested presidential election in 2013, narrowly escaped a blast on board the presidential launch as it approached the capital Male. His wife and two aides were injured.

Human rights activists have criticised his crackdown on opponents including the leader he defeated, Nasheed, who was convicted in March on terrorism charges. Campaigners are pressing for travel bans and targeted sanctions against top Maldivian officials.

The crackdown against political dissent belies the popular image of the Maldives - an island chain with a population of 400,000 - as a holiday paradise, with radicalised youths enlisting in significant numbers to fight for Islamic State militants in the Middle East.