Colombo, November 20: India is now facing a conundrum in the Maldives, a strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean. A pro-Chinese President, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, is in power having beaten his pro-Indian predecessor Ibrahim Solih in the October 2023 Presidential election.
President Muizzu is to correct some of the controversial pro-India policies of the Solih government and look more towards China for fresh economic deals if not security deals.
The fresh deals are likely to be in the field of infrastructure as is the case in other South Asian countries looking to improve their infrastructure.
One of the most challenging problems that India is facing is the Maldives government's determination to get India to withdraw its military helicopters, the Dornier surveillance aircraft and the auxiliary military personnel stationed in the archipelago.
According to the Indians, these aircraft are stationed for the benefit of Maldivians. They reconnoitre the territorial waters of the Maldives to spot smugglers, illegal fishers and terrorists. The choppers are also used to evacuate patients from remote islands in medical emergencies.
But the Maldivians wonder why the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) could not be trained to use them and allowed to operate them independently. They suspect a hidden agenda, a suspicion that is at the root of the“India Out” campaign launched when Abdulla Yameen's Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) was in power earlier.
As expected, the Muizzu government has formally requested India to withdraw its military personnel. This was conveyed by President Muizzu to the Indian Minister of Earth Sciences, Kiren Rijiju, during a meeting held at the President's Office on Saturday.
Rijiju represented India at the President's inauguration on November 17.
Earlier, in response to Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar's greetings on his assuming office,
the new Maldivian Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer said that his government is committed to a“mutually beneficial and calibrated” relationship with India. It is“calibration” which will rankle New Delhi.
President Muizzu has repeatedly said that in foreign affairs his principal concern will be to safeguard the Maldives' sovereignty and independence and avoid giving the impression that he is under the tutelage of any foreign power.
Details of Indian Military Presence
The new Maldivian government has formally announced the presence of 77 Indian soldiers in the Maldives to operate the helicopters and Dornier aircraft.
The government has also said that the previous Solih regime had entered into over 100 agreements related to foreign relations with the Indian government outside of development initiatives.
At the first media briefing since the Presidential inauguration, the Under-Secretary for Public Policy in the President's Office, Mohamed Firzul Abdulla Khaleel, provided details of the Indian soldiers' and presence and responsibilities.
24 Indian military personnel are stationed to operate and manage one helicopter gifted by the Indian government; 25 officers are here to operate the Dornier aircraft and 26 others operate the additional helicopter gifted by the Indian government. In addition, there are two soldiers stationed for repairs and maintenance work.
Khaleel provided details of the work done by the helicopters and Dornier aircraft in the past five years. These included 661 medical evacuations; 220 surveillance operations; 100 search missions; plus defence training, Covid sample collection and transportation, VIP services, and air crew transfers
“These operations brought notable benefits to locals as well. However, Maldivian citizens do not want the permanent residency of foreign soldiers in the country for any given purpose, which is the basis on which the President will execute his policies,” Khaleel emphasized.
He noted that the current administration will begin efforts to alter and amend provisions in agreements with India that are detrimental to the Maldives. He said that the government is now collecting information and documents pertaining to the agreements.
“Based on the information we have gathered and verified so far, we can attest that the previous administration had entered into over 100 bilateral agreements with India. I would like to point out that this number excludes agreements for urban development,” Khaleel said.
He further said government needs additional time to research the documents related to all the agreements the previous government entered with India.
“President Muizzu has already begun efforts to make necessary amendments to the said agreements to ensure preservation of Maldivian sovereignty,” Khaleel said.
During President Solih's regime time, the“India Out” campaign dimmed because his predecessor Yameen was discredited and sent to jail for high corruption.
But the campaign might be revived now if Muizzu fails to get the Indians to remove their military presence or to come to a compromise that he can sell to his electorate.
Bid for Balance
However, when seen in the light of Muizzu's utterances during the election campaign, it can be surmised that he will follow a balanced and neutral policy. He had said more than once that his government would not be seen to be“too close or too far away from any important foreign power.”
This pledge arose from a realization that his party leader and former President Abdulla Yameen was seen as being too close to China and too hostile to India when he was President of the Maldives. Because of his angularities, Yameen earned the hostility of India and its ally the US.
Ibrahim Solih succeeded in ousting Yameen in the election because he promised to correct the pro-Chinese tilt. But Solih erred by identifying himself too closely with India. He was voted out in October 2023 partly because he swung to the Indian side totally giving the public the impression that he was eating out of India's hands. Maldivians' pride was hurt.
Muizzu has now promised to follow a policy that would seem to be neither too close nor too distant from any power, as he put it. The powers in question being India and China. This is based on the belief in the Maldives, and indeed in the rest of South Asia, that small and less-endowed countries need the support of all powers to maintain their independence and sovereignty as well as to grow economically. There is also an aversion to getting embroiled in foreign powers' rivalries.
The Muizzu regime would also like India to finish the projects it had undertaken as per schedule. To compete with China in the Maldives and the rest of South Asia, India will have to take decisions on economic matters faster, and more importantly, implement projects that are undertaken on schedule. New Delhi should be sensitive to the demand for the prompt implementation of projects.
Head-on Clash Discounted
However, political sources in Maldives say that Muizzu would not clash with India head-on, but try to come to a mutually acceptable arrangement. The sources point out that Muizzu is not as stubborn and one-track minded like Yameen but is someone who will listen and bend to reason.
Muizzu is not expected to discount India's genuine concern about its security in the Indian Ocean region, especially where the Maldives is located. One end of the Maldivian archipelago is only a hop, step and jump from Minicoy, an Indian island that is part of the Lakshadweep group.
The Maldivian President cannot be oblivious of the fact that China has an ambition to dominate the Indian Ocean pushing India and the US to the margins.
Its“research” vessels, which India and the US suspect to be“spying” vessels, scour the Indian ocean off Sri Lanka. According to Sunday Times there is a request for the visit to Sri Lanka of a third research vessel the Xiang Yang Hong 03.
This will ruffle feathers in India and the US.
Apart from the geopolitical compulsion to accommodate India, Muizzu will also have to take into account the very close people-to-people relations between the Maldives and India. Many of the daily needs of the Maldivians come from India. For the ordinary Maldivians, India is also the nearest place for specialized medical treatment.
Moreover, India had given billions of dollars in aid during the Solih regime and undertaken many projects which have to be completed. India has also been the“first responder” giving vital help every time there was an emergency in the Maldives.