Changing of the guard set to affect India-Maldives ties : The Tribune India

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Changing of the guard set to affect India-Maldives ties

The incumbent is an ally of former President Yameen, during whose regime the Chinese made deep inroads into the Maldives.

Changing of the guard set to affect India-Maldives ties

Apprehension: President-elect Mohamed Muizzu’s pro-China tilt has raised concerns in India. Reuters



Anand Kumar

Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses

IN the recent presidential election held in the Maldives, the opposition alliance candidate, Mohamed Muizzu, emerged victorious. He was the joint candidate of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM). His victory means the ouster of India-friendly Mohamed Solih, who belongs to the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The new President would take over in November, but Muizzu has already started making an impact on the domestic and foreign policy of Maldives. Since he is an ally of former President Abdulla Yameen, during whose regime the Chinese made deep inroads into the Maldives, there is now apprehension that the India-Maldives relations would once again face stress.

The apprehension is based on the track record of Muizzu, who was the housing and infrastructure minister when Yameen was the President. A number of decisions were taken favouring Chinese interests. China started a number of infrastructure projects in the Maldives, and the latter became a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Maldives was contemplating signing a free trade agreement with China, but this agreement was not formalised by the Solih government. The most controversial of Yameen’s decisions was to sell islands to foreign countries. A legislation was passed to this effect. This was basically meant to allow the Chinese to occupy islands in the Maldives which they could use according to their needs.

This step could have easily compromised the sovereignty of the Maldives. Fortunately, the Chinese could not succeed in their plan as Yameen was removed from power soon after. Yameen had started an ‘India Out’ campaign, supposedly to protect the sovereignty of the Maldives.

Yameen claimed that the presence of Indian soldiers in the Maldives threatened the country’s sovereignty. This was a ploy to whip up nationalism among the Maldivian people, and it succeeded. Muizzu supported Yameen in his ‘India Out’ campaign. Since Yameen was in jail and could not contest the election, the electoral dividends of the campaign were reaped by Muizzu.

Muizzu’s proximity to China has been observed on other occasions as well. Last year, during his visit to China, he said a new chapter in bilateral relations would be written if his party came to power. The Chinese Ambassador in the Maldives was one of the first to congratulate Muizzu on his victory. In fact, due to Yameen’s and Muizzu’s proximity to China, this year’s presidential election was seen as a referendum on the roles of India and China in the country.

Undoubtedly, the ‘India Out’ campaign by the opposition has been the most contentious part of its election campaign. This is also the main reason for India’s concerns, even though following the victory, some members of the opposition alliance have attempted to clarify that by ‘India Out’, they meant the withdrawal of Indian soldiers stationed in the Maldives. Muizzu has also reiterated after his victory that he intends to start taking steps to repatriate Indian soldiers on his first day in office. In fact, he has already held a meeting with the Indian High Commissioner in this regard. He also wants India to restructure Maldivian debt. At present, India is engaged in at least 45 infrastructure projects in the Maldives. Some of the projects related to drinking water and healthcare are positively impacting the lives of the Maldivian people.

Muizzu has stated that he would not disturb Indian projects. At the same time, he has also said he would review them. Thus, a contradiction in his approach is quite apparent. During his tenure, Yameen had cancelled GMR’s project ab initio, even as the Maldives had to pay $270 million as compensation to GMR. So far, Muizzu has only asked for renegotiation of debt repayment, but if he or Yameen creates hurdles in the path of Indian projects, it will have an impact on the bilateral relations.

The close association of Muizzu with Salafist ideology could potentially create another issue in the bilateral relationship. The rise of religious radicalism in the Maldives has indeed been a concern. It has been noted that Maldivians have contributed the highest number of per capita fighters to the ISIS. Religious radicals have disrupted events like Yoga Day celebrations in the Maldives in the past. Actually, the Solih government’s inability to decisively act against the religious radicals was one of the contentious points between former President Mohamed Nasheed and Solih. He was also unhappy with Solih for not acting against certain ministers whom he suspected to be corrupt. Nevertheless, these were only contributing factors, and the division within the MDP that ultimately led Muizzu to power was primarily driven by Nasheed’s political ambitions. Nasheed had aspired to run in the presidential elections, and when this didn’t materialise, he decided to split from the party. To remove Solih from power he was even willing to align with Yameen, his one-time arch-rival.

Muizzu and Yameen tried to create a big political issue over the stationing of some Indian soldiers, but it is also a fact that given the vast maritime area of the Maldives it is nearly impossible for the Maldives to handle security on its own. India has always presented itself as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). So far, both the Maldives and Sri Lanka have been happy with the arrangement. But now, the intrusion of China in the IOR seems to be straining the arrangement.

India has frequently demonstrated its commitment to being the first responder in the neighbourhood during any crisis. Whether it was the 2004 tsunami or the recent drinking water crisis in the Maldives, India was the first nation to come forward with assistance. India and the Maldives also have a close people-to-people relationship.

In the past, the Maldives has adopted a balanced approach to diplomacy, though there was an aberration during Yameen’s regime. It is possible that Muizzu might adopt a pragmatic approach and maintain a positive relationship with India. But this is only possible if he does not do anything that endangers the security of the region. Though Mohamed Hussain Shareef (Mundhu), Muizzu’s political adviser during the elections, has stated that Muizzu would uphold the tradition of visiting India first after assuming office and has asserted that outside powers will have no role in the security of the IOR, it remains to be seen what course Muizzu will actually follow once in power.

#China #Congress


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