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Amidst Deteriorating Ties between India and Maldives, the Island Nation Moving Close to China

Amidst Deteriorating Ties between India and Maldives, the Island Nation Moving Close to China

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Jan 15: With the India – Maldives relations deteriorating day by day in the face of Maldives relations with China developing to strategic partnership, Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu has directed the Indian army personnel to withdraw from the island by March 15, a senior official said in Male.

“Indian military personnel cannot stay in the Maldives. This is the policy of President Dr Mohamed Muizzu and that of this administration,” Abdulla Nazim Ibrahim, the public policy secretary at the President’s Office, said.

Maldives and India have set up a high-level core group to negotiate the withdrawal of troops. The group held its first meeting at the Foreign Ministry Headquarters in Male on Sunday morning. The meeting was also attended by Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar, Maldivian media reports said. The Indian government did not immediately confirm the media report or comment on it.

Muizzu, who paid a five day visit to China on returning to Male on Saturday spoke highly of his country’s strategic ties with China, saying the two countries respect each other and Beijing fully supports the Indian Ocean Island’s sovereignty. He noted that China has provided assistance to the development of the Maldives since establishing diplomatic relations in 1972.

He sought to align Maldives closer to Beijing distancing from India and both countries elevated their ties to a strategic partnership. He also said China’s Belt and Road Initiative has taken bilateral relations to a new level.

“China is not a country that would interfere with the internal affairs of the Maldives, which is why the two countries have a strong relationship,” Muizzu said. He added that the Maldives and China respect each other, and China fully supports Maldives’ sovereignty and expressed his belief that the China-Maldives relations would continue to grow stronger in the future.

He also said his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping puts the interest of citizens first and that China’s economy has reached new heights under his leadership. He added President Xi has assured him that the Chinese government would help the Maldives achieve its goals.

His remarks came amid a diplomatic row between the two countries over derogatory comments posted by three deputy ministers of the Muizzu government against Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the latter’s visit to Lakshadweep to develop the Indian island as a tourist destination in competition to Maldives. Muizzu suspended the three ministers after many in India called for a boycott by Indian tourists who ranked highest in numbers followed by Russia. Chinese tourists figured third.

Male is also reviewing more than 100 bilateral agreements with New Delhi signed by the previous government here and has also sought to reduce imports from India. “We may be a small country, but not a backyard of any other nation,” he commented.

Contrary to what the ‘India Out’ rhetoric in Maldives may suggest, no large contingent of Indian soldiers is present on the archipelago. According to the latest government figures, there are 77 Indian military personnel in the Maldives.

Indian soldiers have been sent to the Maldives at various points for training Maldivian troops, in both combat and reconnaissance and rescue-aid operations. Yet, there have been some Maldivian nationals, including politicians who have protested their presence in any capacity in the country. Analysts in the Maldives and India say that the ‘India Out’ campaign has exaggerated the role that these soldiers play in the Maldives and have portrayed their presence as a threat to the country’s national security.

In 2023, weeks after President Muizzu took office, the Maldives government had said as of November last year, “77 Indian military personnel stationed within Maldivian territory.” In the press conference in November, the Maldives president’s office outlined the specific roles of the Indian military personnel in the Maldives, saying that “24 individuals are involved in helicopter operations, 25 are engaged in the operations of a Dornier aircraft, 26 are assigned to a second helicopter’s operations, and an additional two individuals are responsible for the maintenance and engineering works of these aircraft.”

There have been multiple factors at play and these anti-India sentiments were further inflamed during the recent presidential elections in the Maldives, where disinformation and misinformation, particularly against India, was rampant. The coalition of the People’s National Congress & the Progressive Party of Maldives party, whose representative President Muizzu won the 2023 presidential election, is considered to be pro-China.

India and the Maldives have a long history of cooperation in a variety of areas, including defence. The one time India’s soldiers entered the island for an actual military operation was in November 1988 — to thwart an attempted coup, at the request of the government of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In a quick operation, Indian troops managed to secure the President and capture the rebels. In the three decades since, Maldives has generally appreciated India’s role in this episode.

The ‘India Out’ campaign began much later, sometime in 2020. The resentment had been building ever since Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party (PPM), with a pro-China tilt, became president in 2013. One of the major triggers for this was the long-standing controversy over two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) given by India to the Maldives in 2010 and in 2015, both of which were used for ocean search-and-rescue operations, maritime weather surveillance and for airlifting patients between islands, and were based in Addu Atoll and at Hanimaadhoo.

According to the terms of bilateral agreements between the two countries, Indian officers had been sent to the Maldives to train the Maldives National Defence Force, under whose command these helicopters operate.

These helicopters were for humanitarian purposes only, but some in the anti-India constituency, particularly Yameen’s party PPM, were trying to portray that by gifting these helicopters, India was creating military presence in the country because they were military choppers.  Another major cause of grievances within Maldives was the previous Solih government’s perceived lack of transparency about its dealings with India.

Maldives rely heavily on India for maritime security. India, Maldives and Sri Lanka collaborate to counter common maritime security threats and challenges such as illicit trafficking; piracy; and illegal, unregulated (or unreported) fishing, a major concern for the archipelago.

Another flashpoint was Maldives’ new police academy, built with India’s help and housing the National College of Policing and Law Enforcement. “The opposition’s [now in power] mistrust stems from the sheer size of the building and surrounding complex. One rumour making the rounds implies that the only reason the academy is so large is to house Indians associated with the academy and their families, supposedly rendering it an opportune place to bring more Indians into the country.

A fifth factor is the UTF Harbour Project agreement signed between India and the Maldives in February 2021, under which India was to develop and maintain a coastguard harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu, a strategically located atoll near the capital Male. Sections of Maldivian media had speculated that the UTF project would be turned into an Indian naval base. However, then Maldivian chief of defence forces, Major-General Abdulla Shamaal, had clarified even before the agreement was signed that while the Indian government had indicated it would provide grant assistance for the project, there were no plans of any Indian naval base in the country.

 

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