Woes next door

The victory of Mohamed Muizza in the presidential election in Maldives aroused considerable interest as well as concern in India because of his avowed pro-China policy.

Woes next door

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The victory of Mohamed Muizza in the presidential election in Maldives aroused considerable interest as well as concern in India because of his avowed pro-China policy. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Muizza who defeated incumbent Ibrahim Solih and expressed India’s commitment to strengthen the time-tested India-Maldives relationship and enhance overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, the whispers of discomfort could not be overlooked.

Muizzu’s Progressive Allince coalition was backed by China, signalling that Beijing now shall feel emboldened to spread its wings further in India’s South Asian neighbourhood.
It seems to be like a revolving door as five years ago pro- India Ibrahim Solih had defeat- ed Abdullah Yameen, whom Solih had put in jail on corruption charges.
Solih championed an India First policy during his tenure and shall remain as President until Muizzu’s inauguration on 17 November.

Why does India attach so much interest on the developments in Maldives? In the geopolitical contestation, both India and China have vital interests for influence in this strategically located country.


While China sees Maldives as an important outpost to spread its sphere of influence, for India strengthening ties with Maldives by all means is because Maldives is literally located in its backyard and barely 70 nautical miles from Minicoy, an island in Lakshadweep and 300 nautical from India’s west coast. It is also near the busy sea lanes through which commercial vessels ply the Indian Ocean.

Because of this, Maldives has attracted international attention as the importance of the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region is realised now more than ever before.

Over the years, India has invested heavily to strengthen ties with Maldives to put it in a win-win situation. India has contributed to the economic development of Maldives through various developmental projects. Its $500 million agreement for the Great Male Connectivity Project (GMCP) not only would boost Maldives’economic profile but would eclipse China’s landmark Freedom Bridge an transform the local economy.

However, bilateral ties have to weather the storm of twin challenges:
the major presence of Islamic radicalisation and China’s increasing economic clout in the
country. Muizzu’s victory now puts India on notice as Maldives’ policies
are likely to see a major overhaul, many of which could be detrimental to India’s interests.

India is now more appre- hensive of China’s growing influence in the traditionally India- aligned Maldives. Muizzu ran his campaign on the India Out slogan and accused his rival Solih of having sacrificed the island nation’s sovereignty to New Delhi.

It is seen thus as a setback to India and a gain for China. Even India’s significant financial support to another neighbouring nation, Sri Lanka, has not helped to stem China’s spread of influence there. This needs review now, both in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
It is a fact that both India and China are jockeying for influence in the Indian Ocean. Political changes in these two neighbouring countries have therefore a strong bearing on how India chooses its policies.

It was expected that local issues of sustainable develo ment, a rising ocean bed and the economy would be the deter- mining factors in choosing a president in Maldives.
But all such considerations took the backseat during Solih’s presidency as the opposition focused mainly on India’s growing footprint. The India Out campaign gained currency quickly, leading to Solih’s defeat. The India hate campaign gathered momentum when India at the request of Male had sent a Dornier aircraft to the government.

Under the agreement, India was to station 25 unarmed personnel to operate the aircraft and train Maldivian pilots and engineers to operate and maintain it.
The defence personnel were to be under the command of the Maldives defence force. The opposition projected this as compromising the island state’s sovereignty.

The Solih government entered into another deal with India in the interest of the island nation’s security. This too was opposed by the opposition. Under the Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF) agreement, India was committed to help and maintain a coast guard harbour and dockyard in Maldives and provide professional, logistic and technical help for 15 years to Maldives to build and run it.

The opposition interpreted the agreement in a manner that Solih-led Maldivian Democratic Party government had agreed Indian military would be sta- tioned and Indian vessels and aircraft would have unrestricted access to the UTF. Solih was accused of selling the island nation to Big Brother India. Even before assuming office on 17 November, Muizzu secured Yemeen’s transfer from jail to house arrest, thereby fulfilling his campaign promise.

The Solih government sen- tenced Yameen to a prison term for bribery and money laundering during his presidency from 2013 to 2018. The election result was virtually a referendum on which regional power ~ India or China ~ would have preponderant influence in the island nation.

Muizzu has promised to eject Indian troops from the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which, according to him, are heavily in India’s favour. Muizzu argues that the citizens of the country are against any foreign military staying in Maldives.
This is a serious blow to India in the geopolitical rivalry with China in the Indian Ocean region.

After Muizzu announced that he would ask Indian military to leave once he takes office, India issued a clarification that its focus on Maldives was always been on capacity building and working together to address the shared challenges and priorities in the region.

This includes issues such as combating transnational crimes and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
During Solih’s five-year term, many Chinese projects under the BRI were scrapped. The Free Trade Agreement between Maldives and China signed just before the 2018 elections was also scrapped. Muizzu is likely to revisit many of these. The India First policy of Solih is likely to be put to sleep or just remain on paper.

But international relations need not be seen always in terms of zero-sum games. Despite the fact that Muizzu is likely to lean more towards China, India is unlikely to be out from engaging with Maldives since it has invested heavily in the island nation.

(The writer is former Senior Fellow at PMML and MP-IDSA, New Delhi, and former ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)