Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 10, 2023

Despite media speculations, the bilateral ties between India and Maldives seem to be off to a good start under the new Muizzu administration

Evaluating India-Maldives relations under the Muizzu leadership

Bilateral relations seem to be set for a good start under President Mohamed Muizzu following his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the COP28 conference in Dubai recently. This was the first meeting between the two leaders, who also decided to set up a ‘core group’ to take forward the momentum built by their discussions.

The Muizzu-Modi meeting should put at rest speculative negativism in the public domain on bilateral relations after the former had insisted on the withdrawal of Indian military personnel from Maldives. Addressing newsmen on his return from a two-nation visit to Türkiyé and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Muizzu said that Modi reacted favourably to his suggestion for New Delhi to take back 77 military personnel including two technicians, who were operating three aerial platforms that were gifted for emergency evacuations and aerial surveillance of the nation’s ocean territory for drug-smuggling and other criminal activities.

“Even in my first meeting after taking the oath of office, I communicated it very clearly that we do not want foreign military troops in Maldives... In all our communications, India has agreed to accommodate this,” Muizzu said. He said technical details were being worked out, though he has not received any official decision in writing from India. “We are working on the details and determining the date,” Muizzu said and pointed to PM Modi saying in a social media post that he would respect the democratic decision of the people of Maldives. He added that Modi noted it is in the best interest of the people as well. Incidentally, Modi’s post came soon after Muizzu’s election, the first foreign leader to congratulate him on his electoral victory.

The government’s early declaration putting the number of Indian soldiers in Maldives at 77 was revealed as social media claims earlier had put it at 3,000. However, to persistent queries at a news conference in the President’s office days after his return from Dubai, he said a committee from the foreign ministry, defence ministry and the President’s Office was looking into the matter. “Documents show different numbers at different times, from 77 to 89, at times more....”, he said. 

During Muizzu's previous interactions on this subject earlier when meeting Earth Sciences Minister Kiren Rijiju, who represented India at his swearing-in last month, and also with High Commissioner Munu Mahawar after winning the presidential polls on 30 September, there was no mention of New Delhi having to take back the aerial platforms—two helicopters and one Dornier fixed-wing aircraft. This was/is unlike the original demand of his estranged political mentor and jailed former President Abdulla Yameen. 

While in power, ahead of the 2018 presidential polls that he lost, Yameen had begun by asking India to call back the pilots and technicians along with the platforms. When alternating between the ‘India Out/India Military Out’ calls from the Opposition against President Ibrahim Solih’s government (2018-23), he seldom demanded the withdrawal of the flying-machines.

For his part, Muizzu, throughout his presidential poll campaign left out the three platforms but insisted on the withdrawal of troops, if only to retain the committed 40-percent conservative constituency that he hoped to inherit from Yameen.

In light of bilateral discussions involving Muizzu, there are reports about India considering the replacement of military pilots and technicians with civilians as the new President has repeatedly acknowledged the usefulness of the platforms and appreciated the same.

In light of bilateral discussions involving Muizzu, there are reports about India considering the replacement of military pilots and technicians with civilians as the new President has repeatedly acknowledged the usefulness of the platforms and appreciated the same. However, some media reports have pointed to the absence of any Indian response to Muizzu’s claims after his meeting with Modi in Dubai. Others have indicated that five rounds of discussions have taken place on the subject but were unclear if they included known discussions in which Muizzu was involved.

Muizzualso told newsmen that Foreign MinisterMoosaZameer was present at his talks with PM Modi. A week or more before the Dubai meeting, High Commissioner Mahawar had met Minister Zameer and later said in a social media post that they had ‘productive discussions’ for taking the special relations between the two countries forward.

Tactful compromise

At Dubai, Muizzu also met the leader of the Chinese delegation for COP28, the first high-level meeting between the two countries after the new President’s discussions with Ambassador Wang Lixinand State Councillor Shen Yiqin, who was present at the swearing-in ceremony as a special envoy of President Xi Jinping. At his meeting with Ding Xuexiang, a member of the standing committee of the political bureau of the CPC Central Committee and First Vice-Premier, Muizzu reiterated his hopes for further assistance from China

If the order of Muizzu’s meeting with foreign envoys after his election carried any significance, it needs to be noted that the Indian High Commissioner came after the Chinese envoy. But the latter came only after British High Commissioner, Caron Röhsler, whose choice for the first meeting of the new President was not expected in the normal course. The message was aimed at sending out clear signals of continued moderation in Maldives relations with China as used to be the case under predecessor Solih and unlike under President Yameen. However, given the perceived and not-so-perceived strains in bilateral relations with India on the question of New Delhi withdrawing military personnel, the choice of the British envoy for the President-elect’s first meeting was a tactful compromise.

As coincidence would have it, Muizzu’s return home was followed by his Vice-President Hussain Mohamed Latheef travelling to China for his first overseas travel, this one to attend the ‘China-Indian Ocean Regional Forum on Development Cooperation’. Incidentally, the predecessor Solih government had denied Beijing’s claims of official Maldivian representation at an earlier meeting of the China-Indian Ocean Forum meeting. It turned out that a private individual identified with the PPM-PNC Opposition then under Yameen was present.

Bilateral development cooperation was also the theme song of Muizzu’s meeting with other foreign leaders, including British monarch, Charles III, and Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), Dr Muhammad Al Jasser, both at Dubai, and alsoTürkiyéPresidentRecepTayyip Erdoganat Ankara, his first foreign destination.  At Ankara, the two nations signed a trade and economic cooperation agreement, the first such overseas deal signed by the new government in Malé.

Muizzu also met Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Dubai, their second one after the one in Malé. Wickremesinghe, incidentally, was the only foreign Head of State and Government to participate in Muizzu’s swearing-in, and the one known to have invited his counterpart to visit Sri Lanka. However, Muizzu’s choice of Türkiyé for his maiden overseas visit owed to his relative familiarity with the nation and leadership after Ankara had hosted him when he was the Malé City Mayor. That should also partially set at rest media speculation as to why he chose not to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and make India his first overseas destination. It is also unknown if India had already invited President Muizzu to visit the country.

Cautious optimism

After the Muizzu government’s earlier declaration that they were not looking at fast-tracking the US$ 500-million, India-funded Thilamale sea bridge, the nation’s single largest project (apart from multiple high-impact projects in the infrastructure and social sectors), bilateral relations are set for a smooth sail, or so it looks like. Given the dire economic situation facing the country in the coming months, these projects and also such other foreign-funded schemes, including China’s, are expected to be the backbone of the Muizzu government’s capital expenditure in the formative years. It is a continuation of the economic/investment policy of the predecessor Solih government as against the one-sided China-centric policies and programmes of the Yameen leadership before it (2013-18).

However, possibilities of India working with Maldives on defence cooperation through the multi-nation Indian Ocean Colombo Security Initiative (CSI) may have received a set-back at least for now after the Muizzu leadership skipped the high-level meeting of National Security Advisors (NSA) of member-nations in Mauritius capital, Port Louis, on Thursday, 8 December. India was represented by incumbent Ajit Doval, who also called on Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth. It remains to be seen if the Muizzu dispensation is tilting away from regional security arrangements, whether to distance itself from India or not wanting the nation to get caught in regional power formations of any kind, especially in the context of India-China rivalry.

In this background, India need to adopt a cautious approach to Maldives under Muizzu, who represents the ‘post-democracy’ generation in the country.

In this background, India need to adopt a cautious approach to Maldives under Muizzu, who represents the ‘post-democracy’ generation in the country. This would be especially so in the new Maldives’ approach to China, especially after Muizzu has repeatedly reiterated his resolve for his nation not to get involved in ‘big power competition’ between the other two, nor allow military personnel from any country to be present on Maldivian soil for a significant length of time. For now, it should also silence critics in India and the West who have been prefixing Muizzu’s name with the adjective, ‘China-friendly’. 

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst & Political Commentator.

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