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Maldives under Muizzu: While New Delhi expects increased role of Beijing in Male, Islamabad may be the surprise First Post 21 Nov 2023
A day after President Mohamed Muizzu, an associate of former pro-China President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, took office he requested India to withdraw its unarmed air force personnel deployed to operate air assets on Maldivian soil. This request came in his meeting with Indian minister Kiren Rijiju, who represented the country in his swearing in. He expressed the hope that India would honour the ‘democratic will’ of the people of Maldives. India currently has about 50-60 personnel maintaining and operating the gifted Dornier aircraft and two helicopters deployed in the country.
These air assets were employed, apart from monitoring Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone and drug trafficking, also for medical evacuation from remote islands. The removal of the unarmed air force personnel would adversely impact these activities. It would also hamper the trilateral security arrangement of Male with Sri Lanka and India to prevent piracy in its vicinity.
During the past five years these air resources were involved in over 520 rescue missions. Muizzu acknowledged their role however had fought the elections on the claim that he would remove all foreign troops from Maldivian soil. Simultaneously, he mentioned that he hoped to find a ‘workable solution to the problem. After all, removal of air assets would erode confidence of tourists visiting remote islands.
Muizzu has himself admitted that he is unaware of the true strength of Indian air force personnel on the island. On one hand he demanded their withdrawal while on the other he requested for ‘accelerating work’ on India assisted projects including the USD 500 million Greater Male Connectivity Project, which is a 6.74 km-long bridge and causeway linking Male to its nearby islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi.
There has been no mention of the Indo-Maldivian agreement to ‘develop, support and maintain a Coast Guard harbour for Maldivian forces at Uthuru Thila Falhu.’ This harbour would house Indian gifted naval vessels to Maldives. It could also have Indian technical personnel, possibly from the coast guard, as the base would have a gifted radar deployed. The project is currently under construction.
Similarly, no discussion took place on the National College of Policing and Enforcement built by India in Addu city. During electioneering it was projected that its size was larger than required and it was intended to accommodate Indians involved with the institute, thereby opening doors for pushing in immigrants. Election campaigning was dominated by a pro/anti-India stance.
Seeking to justify his demand, Muizzu stated that Indian troops would not be replaced by Chinese military personnel. Muizzu mentioned in his first interview, ‘Maldives is too small to be entangled in geopolitical rivalry,’ adding, ‘For the Maldives, it is very important that we put our interests first… also we want to work together with all the countries, have a good friendly, cordial and candid relationship.’
Maldives is about 70 nautical miles from Minicoy in the Lakshadweep and 300 nautical miles from India’s west coast. The country is located along major shipping routes, hence has strategic implications for India. Interestingly, presence of Indian military personnel on the island were a major issue during the elections rather than other concerns including rising sea levels and the economy. India remains Maldives closest neighbour, a geographical fact which can never be brushed aside.
For any small nation, sharing proximity with a powerful neighbour, rumours on loss of sovereignty are taken seriously. There are always fears on the intent of the neighbour. Further, Maldives being a Muslim majority nation, pushing an anti-India agenda is easier.
On the contrary, Maldivian leadership is aware that it has always been India which has come to their rescue, whether it be the coup attempt in 1988, tsunami in 2004 or measles vaccines to stem an outbreak in 2020. In 2014, India rushed over 2000 tonnes of water when Male’s only water salination plant caught fire. The Chinese, who were then making inroads, took weeks to respond. India continues to provide Maldives with foodgrains to meet their requirements. Maldivians rush to India for medical treatment as also for higher education, secure in the belief that India will never turn them down. Hence, India can never be ignored.
Maldivians are aware that if they grow closer to China, they could be caught in a debt trap. Further, proximity to China would push India, which provides maximum support and funds most of its development, away. China too has never been popular in the Maldives, considering its reputation of grabbing national assets in lieu of loans.
In this scenario, China could consider employing Islamist Pak to act on its behalf in Maldives, also a Muslim majority country. Pakistan’s caretaker information minister, Murtaza Solangi, was present at the swearing in of Muizzu. Maldivian nationals proceed to Pak for religious studies. This religious education has resulted in the rise of radicalism in the country, with some joining the ISIS, post training in Pakistan. It has also enhanced the anti-India belief. Pakistan ships make regular port calls to Maldives.
The Pak army chief, General Bajwa visited the island in 2018 accompanied by the naval chief, post the visit of the then PM Nawaz Sharif. These visits took place when pro-China Yameen Abdul Gayoom, was the president of Maldives. It is likely that a similar visit would take place again in the near future. All Pak High Commissioners to Male are senior naval officers, possibly with the intent to push for navy-to-navy cooperation and joint patrolling. Maldives is also part of the Saudi Arabia-led military alliance that is apparently focused on countering terrorism, and is headed by former Pak army chief Raheel Sharif.
There is also a possibility of Pak exploiting Maldives, with the backing of China, as a terrorist and drug launch pad against Southern India. In 2020, Maldivian police arrested four Pakistani’s involved with drug trafficking in Addu city along with 80 kgs of drugs.
It is possible that the current request by Muizzu for India to withdraw its air force personnel is to fulfil a poll promise. It is also likely that Male would seek retired Indian air force personnel to operate its air assets. However, there would be an anti-India tilt as electioneering displayed. Simultaneously, while India has been considering an increased role of Beijing in Male, Islamabad may well be the surprise.