Opinion: Opinion: Hard Realities Will Soon Catch Up With Maldives

Fractious and divided internal politics, Islamism and the Chinese hand explain the antagonism of the new government of Maldives towards India. The government before it, the Solih government, made "India First" its foreign policy priority.

Opinion: Opinion: Hard Realities Will Soon Catch Up With Maldives

Fractious and divided internal politics, Islamism and the Chinese hand explain the antagonism of the new government of Maldives towards India. The government before it, the Solih government, made "India First" its foreign policy priority. This was a reversal of the policy of the government that preceded it, the Abdulla Yameen government, which prioritised China and cold-shouldered India. Mohamed Muizzu, now President, made "India Out" his campaign slogan, reverting even more emphatically to the anti-Indian stance of the Yameen government.

Normally, in any country with mature politics, the country's longer term foreign policy interests should not become a victim of domestic politics. India is next door, it has provided assistance to the Maldives at critical moments. In 1988, it saved the Gayoom government from a coup attempt. India has shown its ability to be a first responder in the Indian Ocean area when natural disasters have struck. It assisted the Maldives when the Tsunami struck it in 2004, when the nation faced a water crisis in 2014, by providing 300,000 doses of vaccine when a measles outbreak was feared in 2020, and, when on 20 January 2021, Maldives was the first country to receive a gift of 100,000 doses of India-manufactured vaccines, followed by two other consignments.

India has developed several infrastructure projects in the Maldives. It is currently involved in the largest-ever infrastructure project- the Greater Male Connectivity project. As part of the Hanimaadhoo International Airport Development project, a new terminal is being built under an Indian credit line.In the healthcare sector, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, built with Indian assistance, is being further developed.

India is active in the education sector, in technical education, training to Maldivian teachers and vocational training for the youth.The majority of the expatriate teachers in Maldives are Indian nationals.

The Maldives, a collection of widely dispersed 1,192 islands, of which only 187 are inhabited, possesses a large EEZ of 923,322 square kilometres. It needs to monitor the EEZ and ensure its maritime security. India has been a longstanding partner in assisting Maldives in meeting this requirement. Since 1988, defence cooperation between India and the Maldives has expanded. During Mohamed Nasheed's presidency (2008-2012), India provided radars, helicopters and a military hospital. India also provides medical training and humanitarian and disaster response assistance, help with search and rescue operations, medical evacuations. hydrographic mapping and maritime domain awareness. Indian pilots and engineers operate the Dornier aircraft and the Dhruv helicopters. All the India-aided facilities and platforms operate directly under the control of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). The number of Indian defence personnel in Maldives is very small- about 75. India offers the largest number of training opportunities for the Maldivian National Defence Forces,meeting around 70% of their defence training requirements.

This cooperation continued during the pro-China and anti-India regime of Abdulla Yameen (2013-2018). But President Muizzu seems bent on excluding any Indian military presence in Maldives, considering it as a threat to national security. This is absurd as India does not need 75 military personnel on the ground to threaten Maldives' security. More than that India has historically helped safeguard Maldives' security rather than threatening it in any way. Muizzu is engaging in unprincipled politics in response to local and external anti-Indian forces. He seeks the withdrawal of Indian military personnel by March 15. This is being negotiated. He has already revoked the Hydrographic Survey Agreement. The Maldives also skipped the latest meeting of the national security advisor-level Colombo Security Conclave, in which it is a member state along with India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius.

Why Maldives should seek to unravel a relationship that is vital for its own interests, and one in which India too has stakes as a close and friendly neighbour, especially in the realm of maritime security, is baffling. This spurning of India is in part also because of increasing Islamisation of Maldivian society. Numerous Maldivians joined the Islamic State- on a per capita basis Maldives contributed the largest number. Why an island that survives on international tourism, which requires an open and tolerant society, and one distant from the politics and quarrels of West Asia, should be increasingly infused with Islamist ideology is not easily comprehensible. It is this increasing Islamist orientation of Maldives that explains why Muizzu made his visit abroad to Turkey. Turkish president Erdogan with his close links with the Muslim Brotherhood is playing religious politics in our neighbourhood. Turkey has drawn closer to Pakistan as part of Islamic solidarity and Erdogan is the only leader that raises the Kashmir issue in the UN. One can assume that Pakistan is part of the efforts to draw Maldives away from dependence on India.

After his foreign visit to Turkey, Muizzu made a state visit to China where he was feted by the Chinese. The two countries elevated their ties to a "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership". This was intended by both sides to send a signal to India. The nuance here is that China is openly claiming a heightened strategic interest in Maldives. Several new agreements were signed during the visit on infrastructure, agriculture and climate, China is the largest external creditor of Maldives. The World Bank in its October report cautioned Maldives on more projects with China since the $1.37 billion debt it already owes to China constitutes about 20% of its public debt. Maldives debt to India is only $123 million.

On his return from China , Muizzu's statements have become more aggressive and explicit in diluting ties with India. Maldives is critically dependent on basic food supplies from India, as well as medical treatment. He has announced that the country's healthcare insurance scheme will allow Maldivians to be treated in Thailand and Dubai, even if this will greatly increase costs. He also intends to import staple foods such as rice, sugar and flour from other sources such as Turkey. Whether this would be sustainable remains to be seen.

India-Maldives ties have been badly hit at the level of the Indian public by the highly derogatory remarks made by three junior Maldivian ministers personally against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indian social media has expressed its outrage at the insults and called for a tourist boycott of Maldives. In 2023, India sent the largest number of tourists to the Maldives (2,09,198), with around 11.8 % market share. The government of India did call in the Maldives ambassador to India for a protest, but has otherwise has officially avoided any polemics and has sensibly affirmed that it will continue its development cooperation with Maldives. The three offending ministers have been suspended and the Maldives government, without apologising, has repudiated their remarks.

India is aware that there is also a strong pro-India constituency in Maldives. India has seen ups and downs in ties with Maldives. It has to bide its time. Hard realities would catch up eventually with the anti-Indian forces. India bears no ill-will towards the Maldives. It has certain objective security interests in Maldives, especially in the maritime domain, especially with China's expansionist Indian Ocean policies. Maldives would no doubt be cognisant of India's red lines. Let's hope Muizzu doesn't overplay his hand.

(Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France, and Russia, and Deputy Chief Of Mission in Washington.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.