Tue. May 21st, 2024

Maldives’ president-elect, Mohamed Muizzu, has caused a stir with his statement that he will follow through on his campaign promise to remove Indian troops from the strategically important archipelago nation. This victory for the pro-China candidate is a significant setback for India in its geopolitical rivalry with China in the Indian Ocean region. Muizzu based his entire campaign on the theme of ‘India Out,’ claiming that the presence of Indian military personnel on one of the islands posed a threat to Maldives’ sovereignty. His comments were intended to placate China and provoke India.

The Maldives, comprising 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, is strategically located along the main shipping route between the East and the West. Due to its proximity to maritime trade routes and its domestic politics entwined with the India-China rivalry, Muizzu’s strong anti-India statements have caught the attention of the international community.

The outgoing President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had maintained close relations with India. In 2018, Solih defeated Abdulla Yameen, a pro-China leader from the People’s National Congress, on corruption charges. During Yameen’s presidency from 2013 to 2018, the Maldives became entrapped in China’s debt diplomacy through the Belt and Road Initiative. Yameen signed several high-cost infrastructure projects, totaling around $1.4 billion, in exchange for massive debts. Among them was an $800 million deal awarded to the Chinese company Beijing Urban Construction Group to develop the country’s main international airport in Male, overlooking a more deserving Indian company.

Yameen, who was imprisoned for money laundering and unable to run against Solih in the recent elections, supported Muizzu as the presidential candidate. Solih’s position deteriorated further after a split in his ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, resulting in one of his prominent party leaders, Mohamed Nasheed, breaking away and helping the opposition secure victory. Following his win, Muizzu thanked his political mentor Yameen by transferring him from prison to house arrest.

Solih pursued an “India First” policy and fostered good relations with New Delhi in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Neighbour First” policy. Numerous infrastructure projects were initiated as part of this approach. India has historically maintained strong bilateral ties with the Maldives, except during the Yameen regime. In 1988, India provided assistance to counter a coup against the Maldivian government. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, India’s naval presence allowed it to promptly support the Maldives. India also assisted the Maldives in overcoming a drinking water crisis in 2014 and provided medical aid during Operation Sanjeevani. Even in January 2021, when developed nations and China were not sharing Covid vaccines, India sent vaccines to the Maldives as part of Operation Vaccine Maitri.

“India and Maldives share civilizational links and enjoy cordial and multi-dimensional relations. Maldives has been a time-tested partner of India in the Indian Ocean region. India was among the first countries to recognize Maldives after its independence in 1965,” says Sandeep Tripathi, founder of the Forum for Global Studies.

India has provided Lines of Credit to the Maldives multiple times to finance various civilian, infrastructure, and defense projects. India has been involved in developing the Maldives’ defense infrastructure from scratch. The Indian Navy has gifted naval vessels for coastal surveillance and combating drug trafficking. New Delhi has also assisted with personnel training, capability development, infrastructure construction, and joint exercises.

Both countries regularly engage in bilateral defense cooperation dialogues at the defense secretary level, with the latest occurring in March in Male. The recent joint effort to develop the ‘Uthuru Thila Falhu’ Naval Base, aimed at promoting regional development and security, exemplifies their collaboration in defense platforms and infrastructure.

India and the Maldives have also collaborated with Sri Lanka on shared maritime security concerns in the region, leading to a biennial trilateral security dialogue between the three nations. Since 2011, the Colombo Security Conclave has acted as a mini-lateral organization to enhance security cooperation with island and coastal states in the Indian Ocean.

There is nothing new in the India-Maldives cooperation that has prompted pro-China elements to incite anti-India sentiment among the Maldivian people. As India’s regional influence grows, anti-India views seem to have become a recurring theme in neighboring countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and now the Maldives.

Amidst all of this, India must not lose sight of its long-term commitment to supporting the Maldives in its overall development and making a positive impact on the lives of its people. Infrastructure projects that benefit local communities, generate employment, and improve living conditions will help strengthen ties with the country and its people, with whom India shares close cultural and traditional bonds.

India’s High Impact Community Projects in the Maldives should focus on creating employment opportunities, enhancing employability, and promoting entrepreneurship among the youth. India should also ensure the timely completion of its infrastructure projects in the Maldives. This is an area where China, through its Belt and Road Initiative, often surpasses India.

Once the electoral noise subsides and Muizzu officially assumes the presidency on November 17, the practical challenges of governing the country will force him to adopt a more moderate stance. “The Muizzu government will reflect on India’s contributions over the years and tone down its approach towards New Delhi. Bilateral relations do not abruptly reverse course,” commented Dr. Tripathi.

India must remain patient and adopt a wait-and-watch approach without curtailing its people-focused outreach to the Maldives. In diplomacy, there are no permanent friends or enemies. Initially, India may have to adapt to the game on the Maldives’ terms.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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