By Girish Linganna
In a recent political development that could potentially reshape the dynamics in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Maldives elected a new President, Mohamed Muizzu, 45, of the People’s National Congress (PNC) on September 30, 2023. Muizzu’s victory marked a significant shift in the nation’s foreign policy and raised concerns about the delicate balance of power in the region.
The archipelagic nation has already started talks with India to remove its military presence, Muizzu told Bloomberg News on Friday, says Reuters, with New Delhi and Beijing both vying for influence in the region. Muizzu had come to power on an election pledge to remove Indian troops from the island. Muizzu called the negotiations with the Indian government on removing its military presence “very successful already”, but added that Indian soldiers would not be replaced by troops from other countries and it was in no way an indication that he was going to allow China or any other country to station their military troops there.
Muizzu’s election victory came as he defeated the incumbent President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, with 54 per cent of the votes. What is particularly striking about Muizzu’s rise to power is his affiliation with the Progressive Alliance, a coalition of political parties in the Maldives that advocates for closer ties with China and a reduction of India’s influence on the archipelagic nation.
Opposed to his predecessor Solih’s professed close ties with the country’s ‘Big Brother’ with his ‘India First’ policy, Muizzu, during his 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 emphasised that he wanted to see ‘Malé First’ in his foreign policy, hinting at a shift away from the close ties that have historically bound the island nation to India.
India has been a long-time friend and played a pivotal role in supporting the Maldives in terms of defence and security. The coalition which backs Muizzu has strong reservations that India’s all-encompassing influence over the island nation’s defence apparatus poses a threat to its sovereign status and that India has sinister designs of setting up a permanent military presence in the island nation.
In February 2021, India extended a $50-million line of credit to the Maldives for defence projects and the two countries signed an agreement to develop and maintain a key facility at the Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base for the armed forces of the Indian Ocean archipelago. India also offered training to the Maldivian security forces by the Indian armed forces.
In August 2022, India signed agreements with the Maldives to provide crucial military assistance—including two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters to enhance its surveillance capabilities, a small aircraft, a warship to replace the naval patrol vessel, CGS Huravee, gifted by India in 2006, and a landing craft assault (LCA) ship, besides 24 utility vehicles, to the Maldives National Defence Force. Additionally, approximately 75 Indian military personnel have been stationed in the Maldives to operate and maintain the Indian aircraft.
In the past, India has also signed an agreement with the Maldives, which includes the following: Installing radars on each of the 26 atolls to detect approaching vessels and aircraft. The Maldives had only two indigenous coastal radars; Networking the Maldives’ coastal radar chain with India’s coastal radar system for transmitting a seamless radar picture to a central control room in India’s Coastal Command; Regular Dornier sorties by the Indian Coast Guard to check for suspicious vessels/movements and Yearly joint military exercise, Ekuverin, between the Maldives and India since 2009.
India views the Maldives as a strategic maritime partner in the IOR owing to its geographical location near key sea lanes of communication and trade. Furthermore, India seeks to counter China’s expansionist ambitions in the region, as China has made substantial investments in the Maldives, focusing on infrastructure and development projects under its ‘Belt and Road’ vision for energy and transport networks.
Even as China’s maritime expansionism in the IOR is seeking avenues to refresh ties with the Maldives depending upon what kind of development support it requires, China’s foreign ministry, earlier this month, said in a statement that it was keen to collaborate with the island nation in bolstering their “traditional bonds” and “mutually beneficial cooperation”.
The change in leadership in the Maldives, particularly Muizzu’s ‘India Out’ stance, is expected to strain diplomatic relations between Malé and Delhi. However, the extent and nature of these tensions will largely depend on the outcome of talks between Muizzu and India regarding the removal of Indian troops and assets from the country. India is yet to issue an official response to Muizzu’s demand, but it is widely anticipated that India will try to persuade him to reconsider his position and maintain status quo in cooperation and partnership between the two nations.
The outcome of these negotiations is likely to have far-reaching implications for regional security and stability, as well as for the broader balance of power between China and India in the Indian Ocean. Observers are closely watching how President Muizzu will navigate his relations with both nations and what impact his policies will have on the Maldives’ domestic politics and economy.
India has been increasing its investment and assistance to the Maldives in recent years, especially after the election of President Solih in 2018, who adopted a pro-India foreign policy. India has pledged to provide $1.4 billion in financial assistance to the Maldives, including budgetary support, currency swap and concessional lines of credit. India has also extended a $250-million soft loan to the Maldives—one of the main beneficiaries of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy—to help it tide over the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some major projects India is undertaking/supporting in the Maldives:
The Greater Malé Connectivity Project (GMCP), which involves the construction of a 6.74-km-long bridge and causeway link that will connect Maldives’ capital, Malé, with the neighbouring islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi. This is the largest infrastructure project by India in the Maldives, funded by a $100-million grant and a $400-million line of credit from India.
The Gulhifalhu Port Project, which aims to develop a commercial port and a transshipment facility in Gulhifalhu Island, near Malé. This project is expected to boost the Maldives’ trade and logistics sector and create employment opportunities. India has provided a $50-million line of credit for this project.
The Hulhumalé Cricket Stadium Project, which will build a world-class cricket stadium in Hulhumalé Island, with a capacity of 25,000 spectators. This project is part of India’s efforts to promote cricket as a popular sport in the Maldives and foster cultural and people-to-people ties between the two countries. India has provided a $20-million line of credit for this project.
These projects demonstrate India’s commitment to support the development and prosperity of the Maldives, as well as to enhance its strategic partnership and cooperation with the island nation.
The Maldives’ recent election has set the stage for a complex geopolitical dance in the Indian Ocean, with implications that extend well beyond the archipelago’s shores. As the world watches, the Maldives’ strategic importance and evolving foreign policy priorities will continue to be a topic of global interest and concern. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)