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Is India Losing the Maldives?

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As China increases its presence in the Indian Ocean and the Maldives, New Delhi cannot afford to relax.

Since assuming power in November 2023, President Mohamed Muizzu’s foreign policy has ruffled feathers in New Delhi. After asking India to remove its military personnel from the archipelagic state, the Maldives signed a security agreement with China, which stipulated that the latter would provide non-lethal weapons and training to Maldivian forces. There is a perceptible policy shift in Maldives’ foreign policy as Muizzu tries to reduce dependence on India by diversifying security partnerships and ramping up rhetoric around national “self-reliance.”

New Delhi has enjoyed a strong influence in the Maldives for a considerable part of its history and has stood as its primary security provider. However, this began to change after Mohamed Muizzu took the reins of power last year. Muizzu had fought the presidential election on the platform of “India Out,” which called for the removal of Indian military personnel and a review of the country’s standing “India first” policy.

From New Delhi’s perspective, Muizzu’s actions are worrying. Apart from exacerbating tensions between India and Maldives, he could also set India and China into a cycle of regional competition for influence. Beijing’s recently concluded military aid deal with Maldives is seen as the former’s deepening ties that were previously limited to economic cooperation. Such shifts in foreign policy pose the question of whether the Maldives’ tilt towards China comes at India’s expense.

Going Downhill

Since assuming power, Muizzu broke diplomatic tradition by traveling to Turkeyrather than India for his first state visit. Muizzu met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the sidelines of the COP28 summit and reiterated the demands for the removal of Indian troops, where both agreed to establish a “core group” to find a “mutually workable solution” on the presence of Indian forces. The core group finally gave in to Muizzu’s demand. India agreed to remove its eighty military personnel involved in the operation and maintenance of aviation platforms—two naval choppers and a Dornier aircraft—and replace them with civilian staff.

The new government also did not renew the hydrography agreement with India, through which New Delhi studied Maldivian territorial waters. Additionally, Maldives opted out of participating in the Colombo Security Conclave, a forum of regional cooperation and shared maritime security of the coastal nations in the Indian Ocean region. Instead, it participated in the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum and Development Corporation in Beijing a week earlier, led by Vice President Hussain Mohammed Latheef.

Relations were further strained due to social media controversy when three Maldivian ministers made disparaging remarks against Prime Minister Modi. In response, supporters of the BJP-ruled Indian government and business houses called for boycotting travel to the Maldives. Within a month, Indian tourist traffic to the Maldives took a significant fall, and India slipped from the top source of tourism to the fifth. Amid this controversy, Muizzu visited Beijing and urged Chinese tourists to regain the top tourist spot. Both sides elevated their relations to a “comprehensive security partnership.” In a veiled response to the Indian boycott trend, Muzziu warned that no country can bully the Maldives.

Malé’s Calculations

Traditionally, the Maldives have not opted for bandwagoning or balancing strategy. Instead, they have tried to maintain a diversified and autonomous foreign policy. Aware of its strategic location, straddling major sea lines of communication (SLOCs), the Maldives has tried to avoid entangling itself in great power politics. It has not offered to lease its strategic position for economic benefit. During the Cold War, it turned down a Soviet offer to build an air base in 1977.

After a failed coup by mercenaries in 1988, which was repelled with the help of Indian forces, the Maldives maintained a close security relationship with India. Over the years, India has wielded significant influence on the island by providing it with military training and joint exercises, defense infrastructure, emergency response, and assistance in maritime security. Their close ties led the Maldives to formulate an official “India First” policy in 2005, designating India as its primary economic and security ally.

There is a clear indication of a policy shift in Maldives’ foreign policy, which in New Delhi is seen as “anti-India.” However, from the Maldives’ perspective, Muizzu has framed this shift as reducing dependence on India and diversifying its foreign relations. The shift is a product of both competitive domestic politics and regional geopolitics.

Diversification

Since its democratic transition in 2008, Maldives has vigorously debated its foreign policy, especially concerning economic development and national autonomy. While the subsequent government followed the “India first” policy, the space became more competitive as China increased its regional footprint and grew as an essential source of economic and infrastructure projects. The exigencies of electoral politics and the movement toward democratization have led political parties to seek Chinese capital and aid to deliver electoral promises for jobs and prosperity.

Despite China’s increasing engagements, India maintained a strategic regional advantage by deepening its security and capacity-building partnership. Under Solih’s presidency, India bolstered its defense partnership, characterized by Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Didi described as an “India First” defense policy. During this period, Maldives received Dornier aircraft for joint surveillance and counter-terrorism operations, a coastal radar system, and a $500 million line of credit. Additionally, an agreement was signed to develop, maintain, and support an MNDF coastguard harbor at Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) atoll.

However, this UTF project and “India First” defense policy became a source of disagreement between the then-ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and opposition parties led by Abdulla Yameen and later Muizzu. They claimed that the UTF project and the presence of Indian military personnel undermined Maldivian sovereignty. They argued for “correcting” the India-only defense policy by reviewing security agreements.

As president, Muizzu consistently links sovereignty, autonomy, security, and self-reliant military capabilities. In his inaugural Presidential speech, Muizzumaintained that the administration would ensure no foreign military presence on its soil. Invoking the Maldivian Sultans of the past, Muizzu promoted the idea of self-reliance on military capabilities. He repeatedly emphasized that a small state like the Maldives cannot be bullied and that the Indian Ocean is not the property of any specific country, apparently in veiled references to India.

Muizzu has also put these ideas into practice. He has promised to deploy a monitoring system in the territorial waters without any external help and exercise complete control over its Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), which is twice its landmass size. To this effect, he has signed an agreement with Turkey to purchase military drones to patrol the Maldivian waters. Until now, such surveillance operations have been conducted in partnership with India. Additionally, Maldives has begun air ambulance services with Sri Lanka to ferry patients for medical emergencies, which, until now, have been provided by India.

The foreign policy shift maps onto domestic politics as well. While the MDP aligned itself with the “India First” policy, Muizzu’s People National Congress (PNC) aims to subdue India’s overwhelming presence.

For Muizzu, the diversification reflects a course correction to reduce overdependence on India, which is also bound to help in the parliamentary elections scheduled for April. However, the jury is still out on whether this reduction turns toward over-dependence on China, to which Maldives already owes over a billion dollars in debt.

Overall, there is a visible pattern of different Maldivian governments exhibiting distinct preferences for specific external alignments based on their ideas of state-building and development. For now, Maldives is trying to strike a balance between India and China; however, the logic of geographic proximity puts India at a strategic advantage, especially as a source of aid for natural disasters like cyclones. Muizzu needs to recalibrate Maldives’ ties with India by signaling that diversification won’t come at the cost of downgrading ties with India.

As Indian troops depart from Maldives and China expands its footprints, New Delhi is unwilling to lose its influence in the Indian Ocean region. Amid this tension and competition, New Delhi has commissioned a new naval base in the Minicoy islands, just eighty miles from the Maldives. While the base will enhance India’s capabilities in anti-piracy operations, it is also a response to China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. However, it is also worth mentioning that India’s nationalistic rhetoric at home is spilling over its borders to produce insecurity in the neighborhood. Small states are particularly sensitive about their sovereignty. New Delhi’s inability to correct its alienating messaging for domestic politics is bound to create space for extra-regional actors in its hinterland.

As China increases its presence in the Indian Ocean and the Maldives, New Delhi cannot afford to relax. It must develop well-balanced policies that appreciate the concerns of the region’s smaller states. Unless New Delhi understands the linkages between domestic and regional politics and how hypernationalism weakens its regional security, managing its neighborhood might become increasingly difficult.