By Girish Linganna
After being sworn in as the new president of the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, 45, has formally asked India to withdraw its military personnel from the Indian Ocean archipelago. This request was made during a meeting between Muizzu and India’s Minister for Earth Sciences, Kiren Rijiju, who was present at Muizzu’s swearing-in ceremony on November 17. The Muizzu administration is currently also reviewing approximately 100 agreements, including defence and security pacts, signed with India during the tenure of the previous president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
It is clear that New Delhi is displeased with the situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had attended Muizzu’s predecessor, Solih’s inauguration in 2018, decided this time not to attend Muizzu’s swearing-in ceremony. Instead, Rijiju was assigned to represent India. Ibrahim Khaleel, the Maldivian Minister for Strategic Communication, characterized the meeting between Muizzu and Rijiju as “very positive”. As of now, India has not provided an official response to Muizzu’s request.
The Maldivian people had given Muizzu of the People’s National Congress (PNC) a strong mandate and elected him as the new president on September 30, 2023. His victory marked a significant shift in the nation’s foreign policy and raised concerns about the delicate balance of power in the region. True to his election promise, Muizzu has now requested India to withdraw its security personnel from archipelagic nation and expressed the hope that India will respect the democratic will of the Maldivian people.
Continuing along the lines of the ‘India Out’ campaign led by former President Abdulla Yameen (2013-2018), which accused President Ibrahim Solih (2018-2023) of jeopardizing Maldivian sovereignty by allowing Indian military personnel into the country, Muizzu had incorporated the removal of Indian security personnel from the island country into his campaign strategy.
Maldives is an archipelago comprising 1,192 islands situated in the Indian Ocean. It is strategically located near the East-West shipping route, which serves as a crucial passage for the transportation of oil from the Gulf to various regions, including East Asia, South Asia and South-East Asia.
India and the Maldives have a longstanding and multifaceted relationship that spans several decades. On the other hand, Chinese interests in the Maldives are a more recent development. China established its embassy in Malé in 2011, marking a significant step in Sino-Maldivian relations. The bond between China and the Maldives grew rapidly with heavy borrowings from China to fund its infrastructure projects, particularly during the presidency of Abdullah Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), who moved the country into Beijing’s orbit, attracting Chinese investment and influence that surpassed those of India.
Opposed to his predecessor Solih’s professed close ties with the country’s ‘Big Brother’ and his ‘India First’ policy, Muizzu’s poll campaign boldly adopted the slogan ‘India Out’, promising to remove Indian troops and military assets from the Maldives as soon as he assumed office. He was vocal about his ‘Malé First’ foreign policy, indicating that there would be a shift away from the historically close ties that have bound the Maldives and India together.
India has been a long-time friend of the Maldives and played a critical role in providing the country with defence and security support. Muizzu and his coalition have strong reservations that India’s over-arching influence over the Maldives’ defence apparatus threatens its sovereignty and that India harbours sinister plans of establishing a permanent military presence in the archipelago.
Under President Solih’s leadership, India’s relationship with the Maldives had experienced a positive momentum as he realigned the nation’s relations with long-time benefactor India. India actively engaged in the development of Maldivian infrastructure and witnessed an increase in defence cooperation with the archipelago. This cooperation seems to be facing difficulties at the moment.
This is not the first occasion when a Maldivian president has requested India to withdraw its military personnel from the group of islands. Back in 2018, Yameen had declined to extend a contract that allowed India to have two naval helicopters stationed in the Maldives as a gift and also insisted on the departure of Indian security personnel from the nation.
In contrast to Yameen, who made the request towards the end of his presidency and was subsequently removed from power in the election that ensued, Muizzu has just assumed presidency. Additionally, Indian investment in the Maldives was considerably smaller back in 2018 compared to that in the present times. India’s interests and involvement in the island nation have now significantly increased.
During a press conference on Sunday, Mohamed Firuzul Abdul Khaleel, Undersecretary for Public Policy, disclosed that there were currently 77 Indian military members stationed in the Maldives. Out of these individuals, 24 are involved in helicopter operations, 25 are dedicated to the operations of a Dornier aircraft, 26 are assigned to a second helicopter’s operations and an additional two individuals are responsible for maintenance and engineering tasks related to these aircraft.
According to a Maldivian analyst residing outside the country who spoke with a media outlet, India was initially supposed to provide training to Maldivians for operating and maintaining the helicopters. However, the analyst suggests that India may have intentionally delayed this process in order to prolong the presence of its personnel in the archipelago.
The Maldivian analyst noted that, while India’s defence partnership with the Maldives serves its own security interests, the expulsion of Indian security personnel is expected to have a more significant impact on the Maldives than on India. Due to the inadequacy of the Maldivian security apparatus in protecting its extensive Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from illegal activities, such as fishing, drugs and weapons trafficking, as well as extremism, India has been fulfilling the role of its primary security provider.
An EEZ is an area extending up to 200 nautical miles (approximately 370 km) from a country’s coastline, where the nation holds special rights and jurisdiction over the exploration and use of marine resources. Within this zone, the country has exclusive rights to exploit and manage the natural resources, such as fishes, minerals and oil; it also has control over the regulation of such activities as fishing, drilling and research.
India has not only contributed to the development of the Maldives’ defence infrastructure by establishing a coastal surveillance radar system, a military hospital and training facility for the Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF), but it has also supplied various pieces of military equipment, including aircraft, helicopters, sea ambulances, a landing craft assault ship and interceptor boats, among others, to its neighbour.
Significantly, India has played a crucial role in providing training to the Maldivian forces. Notably, India has fulfilled around 70 per cent of the training needs of the MNDF. According to a research website, India has trained over 1,400 MNDF personnel in the last decade alone. This accomplishment is noteworthy considering the relatively small size of the Maldivian military force, which comprises approximately 4,000 personnel. In addition, India actively participates in joint patrolling and surveillance operations within the Maldivian EEZ and collaborates on conducting joint naval exercises.
Muizzu, who is believed to have a pro-China stance, potentially intends to decrease the Maldives’ reliance on India by seeking more support from China for infrastructure development and trade. However, terminating contracts does come with consequences for the Maldives. An example of this occurred in 2012 when President Mohamed Waheed Hassan abruptly ended a contract that his predecessor Mohamed Nasheed had signed with India’s GMR Group for the development and management of Malé airport. This decision backfired as a Singapore Arbitration Tribunal ruled that the Maldives was obligated to compensate GMR with $271 million in damages.
India has been the primary responder during political, security and humanitarian emergencies in the Maldives due to their close geographical proximity. In November 1988, Indian troops successfully pre-empted a coup attempt instigated by foreign mercenaries. Moreover, India played a significant role in providing relief during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, addressing the water crisis in 2014 and assisting during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the Maldives was the first country to receive India’s Covishield vaccines in January 2021. Additionally, many Maldivians seek education and medical treatment in India.
Muizzu’s strong demand for India’s departure was largely seen as a tactic during his campaign and not taken seriously. They believed that the practical realities of governing the country would compel him to soften his stance and reduce his demands. Nevertheless, Muizzu has been exceptionally persistent in pursuing the matter since his election. He wasted no time in initiating discussions on the withdrawal of Indian personnel with the Indian high commission in Malé after his victory. He formally pressed this demand during his meeting with Minister Rijiju and even mentioned it in his inaugural speech, albeit without specifically mentioning India.
One positive aspect amid a generally negative bilateral situation is that the new Maldivian president has recognized the value of Indian helicopters for the people of the Maldives. Following the Muizzu-Rijiju meeting, the Maldivian government issued a concise press release in the Dhivehi language, which solely mentioned the formal request for India to withdraw its security personnel. Subsequently, another press release in English highlighted the importance of the two Indian helicopters in conducting numerous emergency medical evacuations for the benefit of Maldivians.
India and the Maldives have apparently agreed to explore feasible solutions for ongoing cooperation. It remains uncertain which stance the Maldivian diplomacy will ultimately adopt—that mentioned in the Dhivehi press release, or the English one.
In terms of defence cooperation with neighbouring countries, India will have to modify its approach. While covert agreements might be simpler to secure, they will likely face opposition from opposing political parties. Additionally, India should strive to engage with parties and politicians across the political spectrum in neighbouring countries regardless of their affiliations. In this regard, India can draw valuable lessons from Chinese diplomacy in South Asia. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)