COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — India said on Sunday that the Maldives leader has committed to an "India first" policy in talks with its external affairs minister, a step that would signal improving ties between the two nations that had soured amid Maldives' leaning closer to China.
Maldives President Yameen Abdul Gayoom made the statement in a meeting with India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during his two-day visit to the island nation.
Gayoom's comment came after Swaraj stressed India's "neighbors first" policy, in which India has pledged to share the benefits of its economic growth with immediate neighbors — a move seen trying to offset China's influence.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year had avoided Maldives in his tour of neighboring island states. He did not specify a reason but it was seen as avoiding controversy amid political unrest in the Maldives that followed the arrest of the country's pro-India ex-president and Maldives' increasing tilt toward China.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed has since been convicted of ordering the arrest of a top judge while in office and sentenced to 13 years in prison. His trial drew widespread international condemnation for apparent lack of due process.
Swaraj on Sunday also presided over a forum where India's assistance to construct a training center for Maldives defense forces, military training facilities in India, medical camps and joint exercises were discussed, the statement said.
China in recent years has been increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean, which India considers to be within its sphere of influence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives in 2013 and obtained support from Gayoom for his modern maritime silk road initiative seen as a way of encircling India and controlling port access along sea lanes linking the energy-rich Persian Gulf and economic centers in eastern China.
During Xi's visit, Maldives also handed an airport expansion project to China, which had earlier been taken away from India.