India–Maldives Ties in Choppy Waters

Date:

Introduction

Relations between India and Maldives hit a rocky patch when the new President Mohamed Muizzu was elected in September 2023. It was expected that bilateral relations under Muizzu would not be as warm and cordial as under the previous President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The foreign policy of Solih ever since he assumed power in 2018 was anchored in the theme of ‘India First’.

As against this, Muizzu fought the 2023 Presidential election on the slogan of ‘India Out’. According to a report by the European Election Observation Commission, parties supporting Muizzu ‘deployed anti-India sentiments and attempted to spread disinformation around this theme during the 2023 presidential elections’.

The rapid and precipitous decline in bilateral ties has come as a huge surprise to all observers and analysts of the evolving scenario. If there is one individual who can be held responsible for this unfortunate turn of events, it is none other than Muizzu himself. He has conducted Maldives’ relations with India with immaturity, lack of sophistication, short-sightedness and impetuosity.

Background

It is not unusual for India’s smaller neighbours to suffer from a small-country syndrome. There are several reasons for this. In the context of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), India is the only country in the grouping that shares land or maritime boundaries with each of the other member countries, while none of the other countries shares a border with any other member except India (other than Pakistan and Afghanistan which share a land border with each other).

According to Kautilya’s Mandala Theory, an immediate neighbor state is most likely to be an adversary (real or potential) and a state next to the immediate neighbor is likely to be a friend. This sentiment becomes even more pronounced when the differential between the neighboring countries in territorial area, population, size of economy, etc., is widely different. India accounts for more than 70 per cent of the total area, population, GDP of the SAARC member states.  As such, India’s small neighbors have an apprehension that their independence and sovereignty could be under threat although India’s policies have always tried to reassure them that India has nothing but their security, well-being and prosperity at heart.

In the instant case of Maldives, this is unmistakably demonstrated by India’s prompt assistance during the 1988 coup attempt. The immediate withdrawal by India of its troops when they were no longer required, totally debunked any fears of Indian dominance or territorial aspirations. India was also the first to assist Maldives during the 2004 Tsunami and the water crisis in Malé in December 2014. India’s rapid and comprehensive assistance and support during the outbreak of measles and COVID-19 in 2020 established beyond doubt the advantages of India’s proximity and capacity to come to Maldives’ rescue in distress as compared to any other distant country. All these incidents further reinforce India’s credentials of being the ‘first responder’ in times of distress to Maldives and other neighboring countries.

The anti-India small-country syndrome is used by certain segments in the neighboring countries in their domestic politics for their narrow and short-sighted personal interests. This is what has been done by Muizzu and his party in the recent elections. It would be expected that parties in neighboring countries that engage in shrill political rhetoric during the election process would steer themselves to a more centrist position once the responsibilities of governance devolve upon them. Exactly the opposite seems to have occurred in the case of Muizzu who appears to have become even more belligerent and hostile than he was during the elections.

India’s neighbors are also prone to using the China card to get more benefits and support in trade terms, investments, and infrastructure development from both India and China. This demands that they ensure warm and cordial relations with both the countries. This is what was pursued by Muizzu’s predecessor Solih who ruled from 2018 to 2023. Muizzu appears to have moved totally to the China camp by unnecessarily downgrading Maldives’ ties with India. This is nothing short of shooting itself in the foot as the track record of China in helping developing countries to achieve their developmental aspirations is highly suspect. Most countries who have been recipient of Chinese funding for investment projects have sunk into unsustainable debt from which they find themselves difficult to extricate. On the contrary, India’s support to developing countries is according to their needs and has not led any country into an unmanageable debt burden for them.

India–Maldives Relations

Relations between the two countries are deep-rooted and multi-faceted. The last few years, particularly during the Solih regime, have witnessed many new initiatives to strengthen and expand bilateral ties in diverse areas. In the security sphere, some of these pertained to capacity building and training requirements of the Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF), meeting around 70 per cent of their defense training needs, joint exercises, Maritime Domain Awareness, gifting of hardware, and infrastructure development such as the building of the National College for Police and Law Enforcement.

Infrastructure development projects in the health sector have included the establishment of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital and a state-of-the-art Cancer Hospital. India has also helped restore the Hukuru Miskiiy (Friday Mosque) in Malé, has undertaken projects relating to the provision of water and sanitation in 34 Islands, the Addu Development Project (Roads and Land Reclamation), expansion of Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company Limited (MIFCO) facilities in Felivaru and Gemanafushi, the Gulhifalhu Port project, the Hulhumalé Cricket Stadium, airport redevelopment projects in Hanimaadhoo and Gan, the Greater Male Connectivity Project and many more. By embarking on his reckless and ill-conceived venture, Muizzu has heavily damaged the interests of Maldives and its citizens.

Recent Developments

Going against the past practice of coming to India as the first foreign country to visit after assuming charge, Muizzu chose Turkiye as his first foreign destination. This is indicative of the larger role that Turkiye can be expected to play in the defense and domestic affairs of Maldives. Over the years, Maldives has been transforming into an increasingly Islamic radicalized society. It had the dubious distinction of being the largest per capita supplier of foreign militants and terrorists to the cadres of the Islamic State fighting in Syria and other neighboring countries. Turkiye in its bid to emerge as the leader of the Muslim Ummah has been dabbling in South Asian affairs particularly by strengthening its ties with Pakistan and reaching out to others like Bangladesh. Its increased presence in Maldives will be a matter of concern for India.

Prime Minster Narendra Modi during his visit to Lakshadweep on 2 January 2024 extolled the charm of the islands and encouraged more Indians to visit and enjoy their serene beauty. Totally unprovoked, three junior Maldivian ministers came out with vituperative, racist and abusive tirades against India, Indians and PM Modi himself. After a barrage of criticism on social media by Indian common people and celebrities against these remarks and threat to stop visiting Maldives as tourists (India contributed the largest viz. 12 per cent of total Maldivian incoming tourists in 2022), the Maldivian government ‘suspended’ (not dismissed) the three deputy ministers.

At the time when the mayhem about the Ministers’ remarks was in full sway, Muizzu was on a five-day long visit to China. He chose China to be his second port of call (after a short official trip to Dubai for the COP28 during which he also met PM Modi) during which he ‘elevated’ bilateral relations with China to ‘strategic cooperation’, signed 20 agreements, joined China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Strategic Initiative (GSI), and Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI), revived the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Free Trade Agreement (FTA) from the Yameen era, both of which his successor Solih had put on the backburner.

On his return, he needlessly and haughtily declared that Maldives might be a small country but it did not give the right to any country to “bully” it. He added, “Though we have small islands in this ocean, we have a vast exclusive economic zone of 900,000 square kilometers. Maldives is one of the countries with the biggest share of this ocean. This ocean does not belong to a specific country. This ocean belongs to all countries situated in it”.

In addition, Maldives gave permission to the docking of the Chinese research/spy vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 in Malé. Maldives’ explanation that the visit of the vessel was only to replenish stocks sounds hollow. Similarly, Muizzu’s decision to extend the Maldives’ public health insurance coverage to hospitals in Dubai and Thailand, beyond those in India and Sri Lanka, is calculated to significantly decrease its connect with India. Coming on the heels of the non-extension of the joint hydrographic agreement with India which expires in June 2024 and ultimatum to India to withdraw its “77 troops” (which are basically stationed in Maldives for humanitarian assistance and medical evacuation purposes) by 15 March 2024 signifies a pro-active push to replace India with China, Turkiye and other countries in meeting the strategic and daily requirements of the Maldivian government and people.

Muizzu’s anticipated yet fast-tracked replacement of India with China as the preferred partner, requesting China to send more tourists in a bid to supplant India’s significant presence in this sector, his simultaneous new partnership with distant Türkiye in civil and military trade as well as in importing essential staples like rice and flour from Türkiye, so as ‘not to rely on one country’ have created a new strategic conundrum and evoked considerable concern in India.

The Way Forward

Significant segments of the Maldivian population are in support of strong and close relations with India. Strong statements criticizing comments by the three junior ministers against India and PM Modi were made by many common people as well as respected members of the political elite of Maldives like Ibrahim Solih and Mohamed Nasheed, both former Presidents of the country, Abdulla Shahid, former President of the UN General Assembly and Maldivian Foreign Minister, and several more. There have also been demands by several Maldivian leaders that Muizzu should tender an apology to India.

There are reports that the Opposition parties will bring a No-Confidence motion against Muizzu in the Maldivian Parliament. In the recent elections for the Mayor of Male, the position occupied by Muizzu before being elected President, the India-leaning party scored a decisive victory over the candidate put up by Muizzu’s party. The Parliament, elections to which are scheduled for 17 March 2024, is currently controlled by the party which advocates strong and warm relations with India.

India needs to reach out and proactively cultivate ties with the people of Maldives who are favorably disposed towards India. This would of course need to be done without in any way interfering in the internal affairs of the country.

India extends large quantities of developmental support and aid to Maldives. India will need to draw some clear red lines concerning its core strategic and security interests which must be respected by the Maldives if it wishes to continue to receive India’s support. There are other areas also where India can exercise its influence over Maldives. Comments from Maldives suggest that while it is keen to continue to receive largesse from India, it is not agreeable to respect India’s sensitivities.

Maldives would have to be told firmly that this would not be acceptable. All this would need to be communicated to Maldives behind closed doors and not through the media. The above carrot and stick approach would need to be conducted in a sophisticated and nuanced manner. Keeping in view the geo-strategic importance of Maldives, India should not respond in a knee-jerk fashion but adopt a measured, sober and well thought through approach. This is what India has done so far. It needs to continue the same policy with equal finesse.

Conclusion

The challenge posed by Muizzu’s government is stiff but not one that the experienced and mature diplomacy of India will not be able to handle. China continues to expand and deepen its ties with India’s neighbours in an effort to create a ‘string of pearls’ around it to contain it. India, through its Neighbourhood First, Act East and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in The Region) policies, has been assiduously reaching out to its land and maritime neighbors. These initiatives have yielded positive and encouraging results.

PM Modi’s first visit to Nepal in August 2014 was the first visit by an Indian PM to Nepal in 17 years. Over the last nine years, PM Modi has travelled five times to Nepal, twice for multilateral engagements and thrice on bilateral visits. Similarly, the India–Nepal Joint Commission held in September 2014 was the first meeting of this body in 23 years. PM Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015 was the first bilateral visit by an Indian PM to that country in 32 years. Over the last nine years, PM Modi has travelled thrice to Sri Lanka, all visits being bilateral in nature.

India continues to give increasing priority to all its neighboring countries. It needs to further step up its game and use all the assets at its command of development cooperation, soft power, culture, language, cuisine, music, etc., to significantly deepen and upgrade its ties with its neighboring countries.

This report was first published in Manohar Parrrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar
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Ashok Sajjanhar is President, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.

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