Brics Financial Media

The Neighbourly Connections: Sri Lanka and Maldives Promoting Economic Diplomacy

By Srimal Fernando

12 March 2019

It is true that in certain epochs of Sri Lanka and Maldives bilateral history positioned their foreign policy settings in such a way to maximize its own economic and security   preferences. Given these features and trends in the two-sided diplomacy, Maldivian President Solih,being the chief guest at the 71st Independence Day celebrations in Sri Lanka turned a new leaf in the formal ties.

Speaking at the state dinner in honour of the Maldivian chief guest  Maithripala Sirisena the Sri Lankan President reassured of his government’s unwavering commitment and support towards the Maldives. In turn the President Ibrahim Solih noted the manifold contributions made by Sri Lanka towards the Maldives and expressed his desire for further cooperation on mutually beneficial areas.    

It  seems  reasonable  to ascertain  there  has  been  a revival of the neighbourly bonds   following the new government coming to power in  Maldives. There  is   tremendous  sense of anxiety  in the foreign policy  circles how these two nations  can bring about a workable  strategic  diplomatic  partnership that  requires   consensus  among   policy makers of  Sri Lanka  and Maldives in the future. Due to its geographical settings the reasons for this are manifold.  

This  foreign policy agenda  for the two island nations  is  derived from  an economic  imperative  in which  both  nations finds it self  utterly dependent  on  tourism and fisheries.   Looking back   on commercial diplomacy Sri Lanka has become one of the top trading partners of Maldives. 

The current bilateral trade turnover has grown and Sri Lankan products have also gradually gained a foothold having a two-way turnover reaching US$181 million.  On the supply side Sri Lankan exports to Maldives touched US$95 billion in 2016. Similarly US$ 86 million worth of imports were from Maldives (Sri Lanka Export Development Board Market Development Division 2017).   Decades ago, tourist visiting Maldives and Sri Lanka   numbered about   300,000. Today both these nations receive   over 2 million   visitors a year.     Another factor worth mentioning is the undersea fibre-optic cable connecting Male to Colombo0. In essence economic diplomacy offers far reaching outcomes.  It is   always difficult to pin point what will be the   bilateral advantages of this relationship. 

On the positive note foreign policies between the two nations was  also  shaped  by leaders of certain status associated   with specific  political  and regional   networks. Years down the line   at a state banquet in Male’ in 1981  the visiting Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs, late Mr. A. C. S. Hameed said,  “Maldives is Sri Lanka’s nearest and  dearest and small neighbor.” In response the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives Fathulla Jameel made a rather interesting comment stating that, “relations between our two nations cannot be any better and closer and these go back to the time when Sri Lanka had not tasted Maldivian fish and the Maldives had not tasted Sri Lankan tea (Verinder Grover 2002).  

Larger than  life  personality Maumoon Gayoom Former  Maldivian  President and  founding  members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) had  ambitious plans  to  transform his Foreign policy vision to  reality.    He  was at the centre stage   in forging   stronger ties between Maldives and Sri Lanka in early parts of the last decade.  This was evident when Former President Gayoom said, “The relations between the Maldives and Sri Lanka had been founded over the years on mutual understanding and respect, and shared values on important regional and international issues." (Maldives News Bulletin Department of Information, 2008).  Nonetheless   Maldives took a different path in a new direction some   ten years ago   in 2008..  Maldives was at cross roads when   Mohamed Nasheed won the first ever multi-party elections and assuming duties as President of Maldives in 2008. His   Presidency was   a new beginning and brought considerable stability to Lanka Maldives ties.  With this background, the two island nation’s diplomacy    underwent considerable changes.

Sri Lanka and Maldives may overcome the disadvantages of smallness and might have an advantage if they forge a interdependent strategic foreign policy partnership in the coming years. But the idea of strategic partnership between Sri Lanka and Maldives need new impetus.  

Srimal Fernando is Doctoral Research Fellow at Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), India and a Global editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa. He won the 2018/2019 Best Journalist of the year award in South Africa

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