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The South Asian Insider

Maldives’ pro-China president wants India ‘out’. What does it mean for New Delhi?

Maldives’ new pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu, who was sworn in just a few days ago, has already started making bold decisions, fanning speculations and questions in New Delhi. Read on for a clear picture of the issue.

With the election of pro-China Mohamed Muizzu as the new Maldives president, Indian diplomats have a tough job at hand. According to his election promise, Muizzu wants Indian troops (77 in number) to withdraw from the scenic archipelago, and has announced a review of more than 100 agreements with India. His bold moves have prompted questions in New Delhi: Will his elevation harm Indian interests? Can he resist Chinese pressure for defence cooperation? The new president was quick to formally “request” visiting Indian minister Kiren Rijiju for the withdrawal of Indian servicemen, who are in the Maldives to maintain and operate two helicopters and a Dornier 228 aircraft gifted by New Delhi for humanitarian relief, search and rescue missions, and civilian missions.
At a press conference, Mohamed Firuzul Abdul Khaleel, undersecretary for public policy of the presidential office, said that the Indian choppers and aircraft carried out 661 medical evacuations, 220 surveillance operations, and 100 search and defence training missions apart from Covid sample collection and transportation, VIP services, and aircrew transfers in the last five years.
People close to the new Maldivian administration have said that “the presence of foreign soldiers is not in line with the wishes of Maldivian citizens.” Before taking oath, Muizzu said in an interview that Maldives’ “major foreign relations issues” were linked to India, arguing that those issues stem from bilateral agreements.
India has said that its assistance and platforms have significantly contributed to people’s welfare, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and combating illegal maritime activities.
Many fear that the new Maldivian government can give preferential treatment to Chinese companies over the Indian firms already engaged in development projects. However, experts caution that such moves will only harm the Maldives. “Any decision to put any of the big-ticket Indian projects on hold or backburner would only harm their national interests,” said former diplomat Achal Malhotra, who has served as the deputy permanent representative of India to the United Nations.
Speaking to India Today, former ambassador to Italy Rajiv Dogra invoked the role of Indian soldiers in thwarting a coup attempt in 1988 to emphasize India’s steady and generous friendship with the Maldives. “History shows that he has to be careful in the decisions he makes. Otherwise, results may not be to his liking over time,” he said.
India’s defence ties with Maldives
For decades, India has been a net security provider for the Maldives. Its defence relations with Male have been characterized by a series of agreements and on-ground support. Since the thwarting of the 1988 coup attempt, India has maintained a steady presence in the region, providing defence training, equipment, and assistance under a comprehensive Action Plan for Defence signed in 2016.
Notable initiatives include the supply of a replacement ship for CGS (coast guard ship) Huravee, a second Landing Craft Assault (LCA), and 24 utility vehicles to the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). Additionally, the development of the Ekatha Harbour in Uthuru Thila Falhu atoll underlines India’s commitment to strengthening Maldivian defence capabilities. According to the Ministry of External Affairs’ latest factsheet, around 70 per cent of Maldives’ defence training requirements are fulfilled by India. It has trained over 1500 MNDF trainees over the past 10 years. “MNDF has also been participating in mil-to-mil activities such as joint EEZ patrols, anti-narcotic ops, SAR, sea-rider programme, HADR exercises, adventure camps, sailing regatta, etc. The Indian Navy has also provided MNDF with air assets for air surveillance, MEDEVAC, SAR, Helo-borne vertical insertion capability,” it reads.
Major civilian initiatives in Maldives
Beyond defence, India has been instrumental in the socio-economic development of the Maldives. By the Muizzu government’s assessment, India extended a $1.8 billion line of credit for various projects at an interest rate below 2 per cent payable over a period of 20 years with a grace period of further five years.
New Delhi also rushed vaccines, medicines, and other aid during emergencies.
It is building the most ambitious bridge project of the Maldives, which will connect the capital Male with the airport-island Hulhule, and the reclaimed suburban Hulhumalé, with the Gulhifalhu Port and the Thilafushi Industrial Zone. Once completed, many analysts believe that it will become the “national economic engine” and lifeline.
In March last year, external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar inaugurated the National College for Police and Law Enforcement (NCPLE), the single-largest grant project executed by India at a cost of Rs 222.9 crores. As per the Indian embassy in Male, New Delhi has constructed numerous parks, hospitals, community centers, and schools for civilians.
“Not just that, India sends a large number of daily use products,” said foreign policy researcher Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy.
Will Muizzu govt promote China at the cost of India?
The change of guard in Male and the new rhetoric could potentially impact ongoing Indian projects. However, the Indian diplomatic community feels that Muizzu may take a radically different approach from former pro-China president Abdulla Yameen of his PDM party, and that his rise is unlikely to make any major difference to the Indian Ocean Region’s security and strategic stability equation.
The conception that China is playing and winning games against India is overrated and misplaced. And this is not the first time that Male has a pro-China president. It happened earlier also. That government was defeated,” said Dogra.
He argued that a large portion of the Maldivian population doesn’t agree with Muizzu’s policies. “These policies are not written in stone. India will continue its efforts diplomatically and politically to convey the message that India values our relationship with the Maldives. Hopefully, the president realizes that they cannot have a situation where India is not an essential element of their traditional relationship,” he added.
Muizzu’s election, however, is likely to result in an increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), argued researcher Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, who specializes in security affairs related to South Asia.
“The Maldives will try not to cross the red line by dramatically increasing security cooperation (with China). Muizzu has stressed that he will not repeat the mistakes of the government of President Abdulla Yameen, who gave China islands on lease and tried to build a joint observation post with them,” Shivamurthy said, adding that the security scenario has changed in the IOR with the strengthening of Quad.
“They’ll be mindful of having China making inroads because they would have to address sensitivities of other Quad members - the US, Japan, and Australia, if the Maldives wants to reap economic benefits from all of these three countries,” he argued.
Others like Malhotra have full faith in Indian diplomacy and goodwill. “Countering China’s influence and its adverse impact by India and its western partners is a continuous process. As far as Maldives is concerned, there have been phases of strong Chinese influence successfully countered by India,” he opined.
“India’s record with the Global South - Sri Lanka, for example - is laced with generosity, and I don’t think the new Maldivian government will overlook that,” concluded former ambassador Dogra.