India-Maldives Relations: What Is the Recent Debate?

233

The diplomatic relations between India and the Maldives have recently encountered tumultuous waters, marked by a series of incidents that have strained their historically close ties. What began as a seemingly innocuous online event shared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promotion of tourism in the Lakshadweep islands quickly escalated into a full-fledged diplomatic row between the two neighboring nations. This escalation underscores deeper underlying tensions and fault lines in their relationship, which have been exacerbated by recent political shifts in the Maldives. Against the backdrop of President Mohamed Muizzu’s election on a platform advocating for distancing from India, the dynamics of bilateral ties have undergone significant changes, challenging the traditional narrative of strong cooperation between the Indian Ocean neighbors. This essay explores the recent developments in India-Maldives relations, highlighting the complexities and implications of these evolving dynamics on regional geopolitics.

Situated 300 nautical miles from the Indian mainland’s west coast and 70 nautical miles from the Minicoy Island in Lakshadweep, the Maldives holds considerable strategic significance to India, particularly in light of China’s expanding involvements in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). While Maldives-India relations have generally been amicable over the years, there was a noticeable shift towards China during the presidency of Abdulla Yameen, the leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), from 2013 to 2018. During Yameen’s tenure, China incorporated the Maldives into its Belt and Road initiative (BRI). However, bilateral ties saw significant improvement when Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) assumed office after Yameen in 2018.

In an effort to reinvigorate relations with “one of its closest bilateral partners,” the previous PM of Maldives Mr. Solih embraced an ‘India first’ foreign policy to foster a stronger relationship with India, particularly in defense, security, and economics. Mr. Solih emphasized the Maldives’ unapologetic stance on its close ties with India in a 2021 interview with The Hindu. Nonetheless, concerns arose in certain circles due to the increasing proximity between New Delhi and Male, coupled with high-level military engagements, prompting an ‘India out’ campaign led by the opposition. Critics of the Solih administration accused the government of compromising the Maldives’ sovereignty and allowing an influx of Indian military presence. This criticism intensified following the signing of the Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) deal with India in 2021, aimed at jointly developing the National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbour.

The presidential race of 2023 saw the emergence of an anti-India campaign as the primary platform, spearheaded by former pro-China Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen. In the lead-up to the election, Mohamed Muizzu, representing the Joint Opposition, rose as a candidate after a series of dramatic events prevented former President Yameen from participating in the electoral process. Affiliated with the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and serving as the Mayor of Male at the time, Muizzu stepped into the electoral arena as Yameen faced legal challenges, ultimately returning to prison. Leveraging strong anti-incumbency sentiments and fractures within the ruling coalition, Muizzu capitalized on the ‘India out’ campaign to garner support. Promising to remove Indian troops from Maldivian shores and address trade imbalances favoring India, Muizzu presented himself as a candidate committed to the Maldives’ interests. Despite his association with Yameen, Muizzu sought to distinguish himself by advocating for a new foreign and domestic policy, rejecting labels of being pro-China while emphasizing his allegiance to the Maldives. He pledged to resist the presence of military forces from any foreign nation, including India and China, in the archipelago, while expressing intentions to foster strong ties with Beijing, citing the benefits of Chinese assistance.

However, initially sparked as a social media dispute involving derogatory comments directed towards both the nation and Prime Minister Modi, including one post labeling the Indian PM as a “clown,” escalated into tangible consequences as three Maldivian Ministers central to the controversy faced suspension amidst widespread public backlash on social media. The situation further intensified on January 8, with India expressing grave concerns through diplomatic channels, coinciding with the travel industry’s decision to halt bookings to the island nation and the emergence of the ‘boycott Maldives’ hashtag trending among Indian users and celebrities in protest. This recent incident is just one among several that highlight the visible strains within the relationship between India and the Maldives. Bilateral ties have encountered difficulties since the election of President Mohamed Muizzu, propelled by a campaign advocating for distancing from India.

In September 2023, Mohamed Muizzu secured victory in the election with 54% of the votes, subsequently taking oath as the eighth President of the Maldives in November of the same year. The initial indications of a foreign policy shift became apparent following the change in leadership, as the newly inaugurated Maldivian President opted to bypass India and instead embarked on his first official visit to Turkey in November. This decision marked a significant departure from the longstanding tradition of Maldivian heads of state making their inaugural international visit to New Delhi.

President Muizzu proceeded to visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was engaged in a five-day diplomatic mission to China, having been invited by Chinese President Xi Jinping. During his visit, the Maldivian President has characterized China as a “valued ally and integral collaborator,” underscoring the deepening ties between the two nations. The visit has seen the signing of approximately 20 crucial agreements aimed at enhancing trade, fostering development, and promoting socioeconomic cooperation between the Maldives and China.

Moreover, in his inaugural address to the nation after assuming office, Mr. Muizzu emphatically called for the withdrawal of Indian soldiers from the Maldives, asserting his commitment to safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and independence. His declaration that the Maldives “will not have any foreign military personnel” captured headlines in India, signaling a potential shift away from his predecessor’s ‘India First’ policy towards an ‘India Out’ stance. In response, New Delhi expressed disappointment and urged the Maldives to consider the presence of its military personnel from a “proper perspective.” India reiterated that approximately 75 soldiers were stationed in the Maldives to operate and maintain Dornier aircraft and two helicopters gifted by the Indian government for humanitarian and medical support operations.

President Muizzu made another formal announcement regarding this matter following his meeting with PM Modi on the sidelines of the UN’s COP28 climate summit in the UAE in December 2023. He claimed that Mr. Modi had acquiesced to his demand for withdrawal. However, while statements from both governments did not explicitly mention any agreement, sources within the Indian government refuted the claim, stating that discussions on the issue were still “ongoing” and being considered by a core group established after the Modi-Muizzu meeting.

Once more, Male’s reluctance to uphold defense ties with New Delhi was apparent due to the absence of a Maldivian government representative in the most recent session of the Colombo Security Conclave, which took place in Mauritius in December 2023. This maritime security consortium was established in 2011 with the aim of fostering a safe, secure, and stable Indian Ocean region, with Sri Lanka and Mauritius joining India and the Maldives as members.

Later on, after officially requesting New Delhi to withdraw its military personnel from its shores, the Muizzu government stirred political and strategic circles by deciding to annul a significant agreement with India signed in 2019 for conducting surveys in Maldivian waters. This Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for hydrographic surveying was inked during PM Modi’s state visit to the islands when President Ibrahim Solih held office, reinforcing the commitment of both nations to closely cooperate in defense and maritime security.

The agreement symbolized robust defense ties, exemplified by the Maldives National Defence Force and the Indian Navy conducting three joint surveys in 2021, 2022, and 2023. Nonetheless, critics of the Solih administration had voiced concerns, alleging that the agreement compromised national security. In December 2023, aligning with his campaign pledge to terminate agreements deemed “harmful to Maldivian sovereignty,” President Muizzu announced the non-renewal of the pact. The Maldivian administration believed enhancing the Maldivian military’s capacity to conduct such surveys and safeguard sensitive information was imperative for national security.

The culmination of recent events, including the Maldivian government’s refusal to renew defense pacts with India and President Muizzu’s alignment with China, foreshadows a notable increase in Chinese influence in the Maldives. Abandoning agreements with India, coupled with Muizzu’s apparent inclination towards Beijing, signals a strategic reorientation in the Maldives’ foreign policy. Analysis suggests that the administration’s decisions, seemingly driven by closer ties with China, could facilitate Chinese maritime activities in the region. This shift raises concerns about a heightened Chinese presence in the Maldives, which could extend beyond economic cooperation to include strategic and military interests. Given China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean Region and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative projects, such developments could reshape the geopolitical landscape in the region. The Maldives’ pivot towards China may offer economic opportunities but also poses challenges for regional stability and the interests of other stakeholders, particularly India, which has traditionally held strong ties with the Maldives.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

[Read Full Briefs as a Pdf]