By: Vaishnavi Verma, Research Analyst, GSDN
Smaller but strategically significant states are sometimes used as a stage for a battle between larger powers aiming for regional domination. The Maldives, also known as the Republic of Maldives, is no exception. The Indian Ocean archipelago has a population of fewer than 500,000 people and a total land area of less than 300 square kilometres. However, the Maldives’ closeness to crucial internal marine trade lines, as well as its participation in the Sino-Indian competition, has long put it in the geopolitical spotlight. In addition to being closely observed for their potential regional ramifications, the recent Maldivian elections were also closely observed for their internal politics.
However, the Maldives’ closeness to crucial internal maritime trade lines, as well as its participation in the Sino-Indian competition, has long put it in the geopolitical spotlight. The outcome of the recently finished presidential elections, and the success of pro-China candidate Mohamed Muizzu, has once again thrust the Maldives into the global spotlight, causing foreign policymakers throughout the globe to turn heads and take note.
The Maldives, a tourist destination known for its exquisite tropical beaches, has long been considered to be within India’s sphere of influence. It is just 70 nautical miles from Minicoy Island in India and 300 nautical miles from India’s Western Coast.
The Maldives’ location in the northern Indian Ocean places it near seas patrolled and even controlled by Indian Navy vessels. India has long had cultural, ethnic, and political relations with the Maldives. India is well aware of this, and it is virtually always represented in speeches and official papers. In a document dated June 03, 2023 India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) asserts that “India has a pre-eminent position in the Maldives,” having relationships in “virtually most areas.”
India, via its naval forces, has often been the first to respond to natural catastrophes such as the 2004 Tsunami and the 2014 water crisis in the Maldives. India has also displayed its military strength in the Maldives, assisting the government in repelling an attempted military coup in 1988. India maintains little military presence on the island. India has given the Maldives defense-related facilities and equipment in recent decades, in addition to the regular military presence. These include a military hospital, a coastal surveillance radar system, and the $500 million Greater Malé Connectivity Project, which will connect Malé with several neighbouring islands.
The Maldives’ presidential election was won by pro-Beijing candidate Mohamed Muizzu, who defeated incumbent President Ibrahim Solih in the runoff round. This change may cause concern in New Delhi since there are fears of China gaining more sway in the historically Indian-friendly Maldives.
Through the “India First” strategy, Solih advocated for better connections with New Delhi. Several agreements were reached as a consequence of the endeavour, including authorization for India to establish minor military detachments.
Implications for India and China
The Maldivian Democratic Party is headed by outgoing President Ibrahim Solih, while President-elect Mohamed Muizzu leads a coalition of opposition parties. Solih, who has been president since 2018, was running for re-election. Muizzu, on the other hand, won a run-off election with little more than 54% of the vote. Muizzu was the mayor of Male, the national capital, before campaigning for president. He was also a cabinet minister under previous President Abdulla Yameen, whose term witnessed an increase in hostilities between India and the Maldives.
The anticipated shift in Maldivian politics advantages China more than anybody else and would upset the geopolitical balance in India’s vicinity, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. This election was a first for the area since it was framed as a contest between the slogans “India First” and “India Out.” This postulation was avoidable. Some called the elections a virtual referendum on India or China. The opposition party did not mask its pro-China leaning and staked its claim to power on the sovereignty plank of no foreign troops on Maldivian soil.
Muizzu built his campaign on the “India Out” platform, and he ended up with 54% of the vote in the runoff election on September 30, 2023. Viewed as a supporter of pro-China former president Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives, Muizzu has opted to characterize the Indian military’s deployment in the Maldives as an assault on the nation’s sovereignty. It won’t be exaggerated to say that China is expected to gain the goodwill that India has had under President Solih for the last five years.
In recent years, President Solih had adopted a strategy that is sceptical of China. China is eager to have free commerce with the Maldives. A ‘free-trade’ agreement between the two countries defies logic as it would blatantly and significantly favor China, an economic giant with a GDP of USD 18 trillion compared to the Maldives’ USD 5 billion. Solih had managed to stave off the Chinese by putting the agreement in virtual cold storage.
Talks on the deal are likely to pick up steam with Muizzu leading the team in the not-too-distant future. Muizzu said that his administration would not compromise the Maldives’ sovereignty and would not be close to any nation. There seems to be a small lean towards China, but Maldives’ internal dynamics will lead the government towards a balanced foreign policy.
India has shown the Maldives great generosity since 2018, giving billions of dollars to help the nation pay off enormous debts left by the previous administration, giving vaccinations during the COVID-19 outbreak and making its own planned infrastructure initiatives.
While India has increased its collaboration with the Maldives in the previous five years, China has been increasing its footprint in the Indian Ocean archipelago since 2010. China constructed infrastructure in the Maldives, including bridges, resorts, buildings, museums, and housing projects, as well as investing in renewable energy, tourism, and telecommunications.
Under the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing sponsored various infrastructure projects, forcing the Maldives to owe $935 million in sovereign guarantees to Chinese enterprises and another $600 million to the Chinese government.
A pro-China president returns to office after a protracted absence, and he plans to enact more pro-China measures. However, the recent election of Muizzu will also throw in a need to maintain a careful balance between Beijing and New Delhi due to India’s significant participation in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Despite the Maldives’ rising mistrust of India, Muizzu will need to take other aspects into account, such as Indian-sponsored infrastructural initiatives. In diplomacy, there are no everlasting allies or adversaries. The global landscape is evolving, and Muizzu’s anti-Indian policies may be detrimental to the Maldives as well as the economy of the region. The Maldives and India have very synergistic relationships, making it impossible for one to exist without the other. Strategic, socioeconomic, and most critically, security interests are shared by both.
New Delhi must evade the perception of endorsing certain groups within the political landscape of the Maldives. President-elect Muizzu now must keep the promise to sustain close relations between India and the Maldives.
Notably, he has not condemned India in the same way that his party has. President-elect Muizzu may need to find a balance between India, its nearest neighbor, and engagement with China and the United States, both of whom are keenly monitoring regional events. Both Delhi and Male must address these concerns without resorting to the ‘zero-sum’ game, which has damaged their ties in the past.