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A setback, but not a disaster in Maldives The Statesman 10 Oct 2023
The election of pro-China Progressive Alliance candidate, Mohamed Muizzu, as President in Maldives led to buzzing that China is in and India out of the island nation. This is a replay of transpired happened five years ago when Ibrahim Solih, who was pro-India defeated his pro-China rival and sitting president, Abdullah Yameen. When Solih stood for elections in 2014, his promise to the people of Maldives was repairing ties with neighbours and adopting an ‘India First’ foreign policy. Muizzu fought his election on an ‘India out’ campaign.
Muizzu is an associate of former president Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who is currently undergoing a prison term of 11 years for corruption. The people of Maldives, a group of islands barely 70 nautical miles from Minicoy in Lakshadweep and around 300 nautical miles from India’s west coast, located alongside major shipping routes, were made to believe that India is establishing a military base which could result in Maldives becoming an Indian colony.
This dominated the campaign rather than other pressing issues including economy, climate change etc, which were more important. The reality is that there are a few dozen Indian ‘unarmed’ troops located in Maldives to assist in operations of a Dornier aircraft and few helicopters gifted by the Indian government. What was, in addition, exploited was the agreement to ‘develop, support, and maintain a Coast Guard harbour for Maldivian forces at Uthuru Thila Falhu.’ This was sold to Maldivians as a permanent military base for India.
Another issue of contention was the construction of the National College of Policing and Enforcement. Rumours circulated that the construction was larger than required as it was meant to house Indians involved with the institute, thereby opening doors for pushing in immigrants.
Any small nation, having a powerful neighbour, rumours on loss of sovereignty are always taken seriously. Yameen and his political associates also exploited religion, Maldives being a Muslim majority country, to push their anti-India agenda. The disruption of the Yoga-day event last year is a case in point.
Maldives has to balance India-China ties to gain the maximum from both nations. Yameen as the president promised to adopt an India first policy but implemented the reverse. His actions were reversed by Solih. Muizzu may have promised to evict Indian troops but their withdrawal could block the utilization of Indian air assets, which play a major role in disaster relief and casualty evacuation operations, in addition to monitoring Maldives EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Their withdrawal will also impact the ongoing trilateral security cooperation of Male with Sri Lanka and India to protect its EEZ as also prevent piracy and illicit trafficking in its vicinity.
No matter who is the President, India has always been the first to support Maldives, whenever it faced a crisis. It came to its aid in the coup attempt in 1988, was the first to respond during the Tsunami of 2004 and provided 30,000 measles vaccines to prevent a national outbreak in 2020. In 2014, under Yameen’s presidency, Maldives faced its worst water crisis when fire erupted in its only water plant.
It was Indian aircraft and naval ships which provided over 2000 tonnes of water to Male. Chinese response took several weeks. Indian supply of COVID vaccines enabled Maldives to vaccinate its tourism industry personnel enabling tourism to resume, safeguarding its economy. Indian tourists to Maldives are higher in numbers than from any other country.
When Yameen removed the Indian company GMR from constructing the Maldivian airport, his government was compelled to pay a sizeable compensation as per directions of a Singaporean arbitration court. Hence, Muizzu is unlikely to cancel any ongoing Indian projects. Maldivians are aware of reality but politico-religious exploitation for power would continue to impact the India-China-Maldives relationship.
Maldivians rush to India for medical treatment as also for higher education. Hence, no matter what is the leaning of the president, India cannot be ignored. PM Modi was the first to congratulate Muizzu on his election. He tweeted, ‘India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested… bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.’ The message was clear. India is willing to work with anyone in Maldives. Others, including Pakistan and China’s congratulations message followed.
The presence of Indian military personnel in Maldives is also a bargaining chip against China, hence despite all threats, removing them will have to be carefully considered. It would also antagonize other players in the region including France and the US. The US opened its embassy in the country in early Sept this year, based on Indian suggestions.
India will definitely find an increased Chinese presence in the country. It will have its work cut out to contain Chinese influence on the island. It cannot afford a second Hambantota port in its vicinity. Any Chinese strategic gains will be exploited politically as was done in the last elections. Maldives elections are yet not over. Parliament elections are scheduled for Apr 2024 and city council elections thereafter. These will need to be observed.
Muizzu has not specifically mentioned being pro-China in any form however knowing the tilt of Yameen he is believed to be so, while claiming to be pro-Maldives. His campaign only mentioned Indian armed forces out of Maldives, intending to exploit the fear of the big brother. These are early days yet. Which way would the tilt go is to be seen. China can never replace India in terms of proximity, commonness of culture and language. In case there is violence against Indians or Indian assets, support flowing from India could be stalled. Ties with India can never be replaced by China.
Historically, India managed to contain growing anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh during the premiership of Khalida Zia from 1991-96 and again from 2001-2006. It also managed to overcome multiple tenures of pro-China KP Sharma Oli in Nepal. It also endured the pro-China tilt of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka. Every time such a situation arises, India bides its time, continuing to provide support, employing its soft power and finally bouncing back, all the while keeping a close eye on developments, ensuring the situation does not cross a threshold. The same will be the case with Maldives.