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Maldives asks Indian troops to leave after inauguration of pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu

Mr Muizzu, meanwhile, had vowed to cultivate "strong ties" with China, which has provided significant financial backing to the nation of 520,000 people.

November 23, 2023 1:37 pm

Mohamed Muizzu
Mohamed Muizzu

Male: With more than 1,000 islands, Maldives is renowned for its white beaches, sun-drenched atolls and high-end resorts, sitting on the equator in the Indian Ocean, south-west of Sri Lanka.

But it has also emerged at the centre of a strategic battle between regional superpowers, India and China.

And, after the swearing in of new Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu last week, there are concerns China will take advantage of a fresh anti-India push from the new government to increase its already growing influence.

Who’s the new president and what does he stand for?

Mr Muizzu won the presidential election in September, defeating incumbent Ibrahim Solih in a runoff after promising to remove 75 Indian military personnel operating in the nation.

China and India’s relationship has grown more antagonistic in recent years, exacerbated by ongoing land border clashes.

Mr Solih, who served five years as president from 2018 as the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, had operated with an India-first policy.

Mr Muizzu, meanwhile, had vowed to cultivate “strong ties” with China, which has provided significant financial backing to the nation of 520,000 people.

He is the country’s eighth president since independence from the UK in 1965.

What presence does India have in Maldives?

The 75 Indian military personnel maintain New Delhi-sponsored radar stations and surveillance aircraft while Indian warships help patrol Maldives’ exclusive economic zone.

Maldives is less than 800 kilometres from the southern Indian state of Kerala.

David Brewster, a senior research fellow at ANU, said the growing perception that Indian nationals were “like spies, occupying Maldives” was political rhetoric and way off the mark.

“The reality is that India’s three aircraft operating in Maldives, including two helicopters, are helping people on very isolated islands and taking them to hospital for medical treatment,” said Dr Brewster, who spent three months in the nation in 2021 as part of a project partly backed by the Australian government.

“About 70 per cent of what they do is medivac or flying doctors’ service, 20 per cent is search and rescue, and the other 10 per cent is surveillance help for illegal fishing.

“They play a crucial role that would be missed.”

Opposition leader President Abdulla Yameen has embarked on a nationwide campaign to strengthen the “India Out” campaign.
Opposition leader President Abdulla Yameen has embarked on a nationwide campaign to strengthen the “India Out” campaign.

What’s the new government’s policy on India?

In the lead-up to the election, Mr Muizzu said he would work to remove the Indian presence “as soon as possible”.

And at his inauguration speech last Friday, he said Maldives would have a “thick red line” when it comes to security-related issues, while pledging to “respect the security red line of any other country”.

“I assure you there is no greater honour for me than being loyal to my beloved Maldives.”

But Suhasini Haidar, diplomatic editor of India’s The Hindu newspaper, said similar statements were made by former president Abdulla Yameen before he lost power to Mr Solih in 2018.

Last December, Mr Yameen — a pro-China leader — was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined $US5 million ($7.6 million) after being found guilty of corruption and money laundering. He denies the charges.

“One of the pegs of the Muizzu campaign promises was to establish what they call Maldivian sovereignty, but it’s too early to say if the India-out policy will happen this time as a diplomatic solution is in the works.

“They did find a solution last time.”

But Mr Muizzu said last week he had begun negotiations with the Indian government on removing its military presence, calling those talks “very successful already”.

How is China involved

Like India, China has invested heavily in upgrading Maldives infrastructure and provided loans, eyeing the islands’ strategic Indian Ocean location over an area spanning 90,000 square kilometres.

Public debt in the country remains high, due to sustained borrowing to finance the budget deficit and infrastructure projects.

Total public and publicly guaranteed debt rose to $US7 billion ($10.6 billion), or a staggering 113.5 per cent of GDP, at the end of 2022, according to World Bank figures.

Mr Muizzu agreed that rising debt was a “danger,” and promised to take “swift and bold” action to reduce it.

But Radhey Tambi, research associate for the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi, said Beijing sensed an opportunity in Maldives’ economic struggles.

“China is trying to eat up the strategic space of India in the Indian backyard with things like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which are opaque, debt-laden, and aimed at creating dependencies,” she said.

“These include being one of the first countries to recognise independent Maldives’ independence in 1965, providing vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, and helping revive the tourism-based economy of its dear neighbour.”

How does Australia fit in?

Last year, Australia established its first-ever embassy in Malé under the Morrison government.

Then-foreign minister Marise Payne said the embassy would “build on the shared aspirations of Australia and Maldives for a stable, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific”.

It would also “strengthen development cooperation and increase opportunities for trade, investment and connectivity in the North East Indian Ocean”.

Dr Brewster said the latest political developments presented an opportunity for Australia to increase its presence.

“Australia can do a lot of things by increasing capabilities on many levels … I’m advocating that we should increase our role there.”

What happens now?

The absence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who attended the inauguration of the previous president in 2018, was noticeable at Mr Muizzu’s swearing-in ceremony.

After the Chinese ambassador in Malé congratulated Mr Muizzu, President Xi Jinping was quick to weigh in, saying he gave “great importance to the development of bilateral relations”.

He also stood “ready to work with president-elect Muizzu to carry forward the traditional friendship, deepen practical cooperation”.

Mr Muizzu vowed to move the disgraced former president, Mr Yameen, from his high-security prison to a more comfortable house arrest.

New Delhi will hope that diplomacy can convince Mr Muizzu to change his mind about expelling the Indians, because, the quality of life of regular Maldivians could suffer, according to Ms Tambi.

“This game of pro- and anti-India or China is mainly restricted to the political class because what matters most to people are things like street lights, fish processing units, school digitisation programs and speech therapy units with which India is the lead player,” Ms Tambi said.

“However, this election was an eye-opener in the way the local people were involved.

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