Modi visits Maldives, signaling India's return as key ally

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived in the Maldives on his first official overseas trip since being elected to a second term

MALE, Maldives -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first overseas trip since being elected to a second term by traveling to the Maldives, where the new president pledged closer ties with New Delhi in a departure from his predecessor's pro-China policy.

Modi met with Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on Saturday evening and later addressed the Maldives' Parliament. It was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the South Asian archipelago nation in eight years.

According to a joint statement, 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 is a marked shift from his predecessor Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who developed close ties with Beijing in an area India considers as its backyard.

Several agreements were signed between the two countries covering health, cargo and passenger transportation by sea, customs services and other sectors.

India had been concerned with Yameen's leaning toward China, which is seeking more influence in the Indian Ocean region. Yameen had pledged support for China's "Belt and Road" initiative and China invested in many infrastructure projects in the Maldives.

Addressing Parliament, Modi underscored the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, saying "it has been our lifeline, and also the highway for trade and prosperity."

He called terrorism was the biggest threat facing the world and there could be no distinction between the so-called "good" and "bad" terrorists.

"State sponsorship of terrorism is the biggest threat today. It is time for a global conference on terrorism," he said. The Maldives is predominantly Sunni Muslim and has been seen as a fertile ground for militants, many of whom fought with the Islamic State group in Syria.

During his visit, India and the Maldives agreed to set up a joint working group on counterterrorism, countering violent extremism and deradicalization.

The two countries also agreed to strengthen coordination in enhancing maritime security in the Indian Ocean region "through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information, and capacity building," the joint statement said.

India and the Maldives highlighted the importance of combating climate change, which especially affects developing countries including small island developing states such as the Maldives, through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.

Modi will travel to Sri Lanka, another of India's neighbors, on Sunday for a one-day visit. His choice of the Maldives and Sri Lanka for his first overseas trip since being reelected this spring "underlines the continued emphasis that the government lays on the 'neighborhood first' policy," Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said ahead of Modi's trip.

Since first becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi has stressed a "neighborhood first" policy for the South Asian region, promising neighbors prioritized benefits of India's economic growth.

The Maldives mended ties with India with Solih's election as president last year. Solih's first overseas trip was to India, and since then, several Maldivian ministers have visited India for bilateral talks.