Maldives: Why Is the New Course in Its Foreign Policy?

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The Maldives, a small archipelagic state located in the Indian Ocean, has attained significant international attention for its new course in foreign policy under the government of President Mohamed Muizzu. Following Muizzu’s elevation to power in the aftermath of the 13th Maldivian presidential election in September 2023, Malé has sought to pivot itself from India by initiating the process of the withdrawal of Indian troops from Maldives, and by forging defense partnerships with other powers, including China and Türkiye. This is a significant digression from the Maldives’ traditional foreign policy, marking a new epoch in Maldivian geopolitics.

Geostrategic Significance of the Dhivehi Raajje

The Dhivehi Raajje, as the Maldives is known in the native Dhivehi language, is the smallest Asian and Muslim-populated state, with a land area of 298 km² and a population of only 520,000. Yet, consisting of 1,192 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls, the island-state contains invaluable geostrategic value. Some of the world’s most important maritime shipping lanes transcend the Maldives’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and these lanes serve as part of the economic lifeline for a number of powers, including India, China, and Japan. The establishment of naval and intelligence bases by any power in the Maldives would enable that power to monitor the maritime activities of other regional powers in peacetime and to disrupt their maritime trade in wartime. Hence, the intensification of the strategic competition between China and India have elevated the strategic salience of the island-state. Moreover, owing to its geographical location, the Maldives occupies a very important place in the growing great power competition in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

The New Delhi–Beijing Tussle over the Island-state

Historically, the Maldives shared strong civilizational, ethnic, economic, cultural, and religious links with India. Since the independence of the Maldives in 1965, India has been the most important political ally, a crucial economic partner, and a ‘net security provider’ to the island-state. In November 1988, Indian troops helped the Maldivian National Security Service (NSS) to crush a coup attempt by mercenaries from the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), and saved the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, cementing Indo–Maldivian strategic relations. India is the source of essential commodities, including food, for the Maldives, and New Delhi has so far provided extensive assistance to Malé in numerous sectors, including budgetary assistance, infrastructure development, education, health, cybersecurity, and military training.

Around 25,000 Indians reside in the Maldives, while Indian tourists constituted a significant portion of foreign tourists who visit the picturesque island-state. Meanwhile, the Maldivians regularly visit India for a number of purposes, including education, medical treatment, business, and recreation. Since 2010, 89 Indian Armed Forces personnel have been stationed in the island-state, who operated a Dornier 228 aircraft and two helicopters, primarily used for search and rescue operations, marine surveillance, and medical evacuations. However, the presence of Indian troops has given rise to political controversies in the country, and occasionally strained the bilateral ties between Malé and New Delhi.

On the other hand, China has developed its political, economic, and military ties with the Maldives since the dawn of the 21st century. At present, the Maldives forms an important part of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the maritime part of the Chinese-financed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and China’s economic footprint in the country is larger than that of India. So far, Malé has received loans worth $1.37 billion, or approximately 20% of its public debt, and an additional $1.37 billion in investments from China under the BRI. Chinese investments in the Maldives included numerous major projects, including the construction of the Maldives’ largest civilian housing project in the Hulhumalé Island, the upgrading of the Velana International Airport, and the first inter-island bridge in the Maldives, called the Sinamalé Bridge. In addition, the Maldives has concluded a free-trade agreement with China in December 2017.

Moreover, in December 2016, the Maldives leased the Feydhoo Finolhu Island to an undisclosed Chinese company for half a century in exchange for $4 million. The island is ideally located to monitor traffic to and from the nearby Velana International Airport in Malé, and its strategic location had fuelled rumours about the possible installation of Chinese military and/or intelligence facilities in the island. So far, no such facility has appeared on the island, but the issue has alarmed New Delhi.

Thus, both Beijing and New Delhi have significant political, economic, and strategic stakes in the Maldives, and in the context of the intensification of the Sino–Indian geopolitical rivalry in the recent years, the island-state has become a potential flashpoint for the two powers.

Tilt towards China?

Analysts argue that after being elevated to power, the administration of Mohamed Muizzu adopted a China-leaning course in foreign policy, and undertook several steps which distanced Malé from New Delhi. The Muizzu administration refused to renew a treaty with India on joint oceanographic surveys. Breaking with a longstanding Maldivian tradition, Muizzu did not visit India in his first foreign tour. Instead, he opted for Türkiye, which has complicated relations with New Delhi. During his visit to Türkiye, he concluded a $37 million defense agreement with Ankara in order to procure 5/6 Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), two of which have already been delivered to the Maldives. In January 2024, Muizzu suspended three deputy ministers who had made negative comments about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but did not fire them.

Following the incident, Muizzu visited China and concluded 20 agreements with Beijing. After Muizzu’s return to the Maldives, he made a veiled criticism of India in his speech. His administration unveiled a plan to reduce the country’s economic dependence and trade imbalance vis-à-vis India, and called upon India to withdraw its military personnel from the country. Later, Malé allowed Chinese research ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 to dock on its territory, creating apprehensions in India about possible Chinese intelligence activities. In March, Malé and Beijing concluded a defense agreement which stipulated that the Maldives would receive free non-lethal military equipment and training from China. By 10 March, 25 Indian troops were withdrawn from the Maldivian atoll of Addu, and they were replaced by Indian civilian personnel.

The foreign policy of the Muizzu administration has attracted backlash from India. Upon Muizzu’s ascent to power, some Indian citizens have organized a ‘boycott’ of the Maldives over the latter’s foreign policy decisions, and instead, the Indian government has promoted tourism in the archipelago of Lakshadweep. Moreover, New Delhi has initiated the construction of a naval base, called INS Jatayu, on the Minicoy Island, a part of the Lakshadweep archipelago close to the Maldives.

What Is Behind the Maldives’ Current Foreign Policy?

The foreign policy of the Muizzu administration is a product of the Maldives’ internal political dynamics and its external geopolitical realities.

First, the Maldives’ internal political landscape is characterized by India-leaning and China-leaning factions. So far, all administrations have sought to maintain close ties with both New Delhi and Beijing, but they alternated between leaning on the two powers. For instance, President Mohamed Nasheed (2008–2012) leaned on India, while President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (2013–2018) leaned on China. Similarly, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (2018–2023) pursued an ‘India First’ foreign policy, while current President Muizzu is leaning on China. Meanwhile, the Maldivian electorate has demonstrated strong anti-incumbency tendencies, and accordingly, the country’s foreign policy fluctuates with every change of government.

Second, Muizzu won the 2023 presidential election on an ‘India Out’ platform. His victory rested upon the strong anti-incumbency tendencies of the Maldivian electorate and the prevalence of anti-Indian sentiment among them. Over the previous years, the Maldivian society has undergone a process of Islamization, and parts of the Maldivian society have been radicalized. More Maldivians per capita joined the Islamic State (IS) than any other nation, and as recently as 31 July 2023, the United States imposed sanctions on 20 Maldivian citizens and 29 Maldivian companies on charges of terrorism. Meanwhile, the rise of Hindutva in India and consequent anti-Muslim violence in the country have created a negative perception of the country among the Maldivians.

Many Maldivian nationalists and Islamists view India’s security footprint in the island-state as reflections of India’s hegemony over the country, and accordingly, they oppose Indian military presence in the country. In addition, some sections of the Maldivian society negatively view extensive Indian cultural influence on the country. This was demonstrated in June 2022 by the Maldivian citizens’ attack on an Indian-sponsored International Yoga Day event in Malé. Thus, Muizzu’s ‘India Out’ platform resonated with a substantial section of the Maldivian electorate. Following his election, he has naturally adopted a China-leaning course in his foreign policy to retain his support base.

Third, Muizzu’s election and subsequent foreign policy decisions triggered negative responses from India, including the boycott of the Maldives by many Indian tourists, the promotion of Lakshadweep as an alternative tourist destination to the Maldives, and the strengthening of Indian control over the Minicoy Island, which has been a subject of an informal dispute between Malé and New Delhi. These factors, coupled with India’s support for Israel in the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian War in the Gaza Strip, have further soured Maldivian nationalists and Islamists on India. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections are scheduled in the Maldives on 21 April 2024, and Muizzu is seeking the victory of his People’s National Congress (PNC) in the election. Accordingly, he needs to preserve his support base by pursuing a nationalist and multidimensional foreign policy instead of an India-centric one.

Fourth, the intensification of the Sino–Indian rivalry, along with the emergence of a multipolar world and the growth of nationalist and Islamist forces in the Maldives, has provided Malé with new foreign policy options. According to Indian analysts, Maldivian Islamists view increasingly Hindu nationalist Indian polity as an existential threat, and hence, they are pushing for the diversification of their country’s foreign policy. The emergence of a multipolar world has coincided with the rise of powers such as China and Türkiye, and Malé is now viewing these powers as useful counterbalance to India’s regional hegemony.

Finally, while the Muizzu administration is leaning on China, it is unlikely that the Maldives is either able or willing to discard India as an important partner. The most likely course of action for Malé is to build up ties with other powers, such as China and Türkiye, while preserving its traditional partnership with India. It should be noted that the Muizzu administration is trying not to damage the Indo–Maldivian relations too much. The suspension of three deputy ministers and the replacement of Indian troops with civilian technical personnel indicate this reality. Hence, the current Maldivian foreign policy is driven largely by pragmatism.

Thus, in the context of the Sino–Indian strategic competition over the strategically located state of the Maldives, external geopolitical realities, conditioned by the country’s complex internal political dynamics, are guiding the island-state’s new course in its foreign policy.

– Md. Himel Rahman is a Research Assistant at the KFR Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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