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June 20, 2024

India-Maldives Standoff and its Implications

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By: Kashif Anwar, Research Analyst, GSDN

Maldives: source Internet

Introduction

Growing India and China competition which was brewing for last few years, the development of India Out Campaign and victory of Mohammed Muizzu in the Maldives Presidential election highlights increased China’s role and influence in the country. The way China is changing the South Asia’s geo-political order, China’s reach and means to undermine India position in the region has become a concern for the India. The recent political upheaval happened due to a social media post has created a rift in India-Maldives relationship and allow President Muizzu to get closer to China. With Maldives getting closer to China under President Muizzu leadership, in coming years the gap and difference between India and Maldives will widen and cause more challenge to India to keep order and stability in South Asia and secure its geopolitical and national interest in the region vis-à-vis the Chinese threat in South Asia.

India-Maldives relationship: An Overview

Considering the current bilateral relationship between India and Maldives, the beginning of the relationship was warming as India became the first nation to recognise Maldives after it gained its independence in 1965 and establish diplomatic relationship. Establishing a healthy bilateral relationship and a closest maritime ally on many occasion Maldives supported India on various multilateral for like the UN, Commonwealth, NAM and SAARC, India supported and assisted the island country financially, militarily and diplomatically over the years. India also executed various projects like the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Faculty of Engineering Technology, provided tsunami aid and gave credit-line to address foreign exchange crisis, water crisis and construct houses.

As the Indian investment and Maldives support to India were mutual, a downfall to India-Maldives relations began during former President Abdulla Yameen (2013-2018) as the island nation started to shift towards China. Such a development and growing resentment towards India in Maldives were exploited by opposition parties in October 2020 under ‘India Out’ campaign which continued and became visible in the 2023 Maldives Presidential elections with Muizzu using the campaign to its advantage, thereby causing a rift in the India-Maldives relationship. Mud-slinging on X (formerly Twitter) become a watershed moment in the India-Maldives bilateral relationship and developments in the last few months are a fall-out of Maldives closeness to China and the continued impact of India Out campaign.

The Chinese Factor and Implication on the India-Maldives relationship

Posts on the social media caused a rise of hyper-nationalism on both sides, which was already under stress due to Muizzu becoming President in November 2023 and his closeness and focus on China has alarmed the Indian Government. As damage control measures failed to address the situation, at the time when Indian started to compared Lakshadweep to Maldives as an alternative tourist destination and Maldives counter response further worsened the situation. Since the incident, the reality around the India-Maldives relationship isn’t on a good term, as Maldives has removed the Indian Army personnel from the country. The number of Indian tourists arriving to the island nation fell from first to fifth position within few weeks after an uproar on X.

With a gap in the India-Maldives relations, China emerged as beneficiary in the diplomatic stand-off. Xiang Yang Hong 03, a Chinese surveying ship vital for anti-submarine warfare capabilities docked briefly in Maldives. Such Chinese manoeuvre in the Indian Ocean region has cautioned India. In return Indian Coast Guard Ship Samundra Paheredar visited Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei in April 2024. Later, the Indian Navy concluded an operational deployment in the South China Sea when three naval ship destroyer Delhi, fleet tanker Shakti and anti-submarine corvette Kiltan made port call which started with Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei on May 26, 2024.

The situation in India-Maldives relationship emerged due to Maldives President Muizzu calls to defend national security and interests and restrict any foreign power interference in country’s internal matters. Although, social media post and response has impacted the relations between India and Maldives,  incidents like scrapping of India-Maldives hydrography agreement reflects that the year ahead is bleak for India and Maldives. Once India occupied the top spot in foreign visitors visiting Maldives and currently it has witnessed a fall of 54% between March 2023-24 as only 8,322 Indian tourist visited Maldives. Witnessing such a fall in tourist and its impact on Maldives economy, Ibrahim Faisal, Tourism Minister of Maldives on May 06, 2024 called upon the Indian tourists to return.

With the Muizzu government working to break free from his country’s dependence on India, withdrawal of Indian hydrographic ships from Maldives, welcoming Chinese ship and joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative will compel India to further strengthen its Indian Ocean region strategy. As China presence has increased in Maldives, India can’t afford to ignore and should ensure they remain strong and steadfast in their ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and undermine new Chinese adventure in the Indian Ocean region. However, Maldives alignment with China can be seen as the Muizzu government’s means to address challenges emerged due to strained relationship with India, knowing such an alignment comes with an inherent risk.

The recent, outreach by the Maldives Tourism ministry illustrate nation is grappling with a debt of US$ 1.3 billion which today constitute 20% of nation’s total debt. On the other hand, India proposed reduction of its financial aid by 22% to Maldives for the financial year 2024-25 has worried the Muizzu government. Getting closer to China has caused criticism from opposition and public unrest towards the Maldives government, on the other hand, they’ve ensured relation with India didn’t deteriorate further and get into a Chinese debt trap and faced a financial crisis situation as witnessed in Sri Lanka in 2019.

As the challenge posed by distancing itself from India isn’t economic in nature, the statement made by Maldives Defence Minister Ghassan Maumoon on May 12, 2024 that the  inability of Maldives pilots to fly three Dornier aircrafts due to unspecified reason have become a concern for the Muizzu government, which were flew by Indian personnel till May 10, 2024. With Maldives grappling with economic and military problem, Maldives President Muizzu vision and inclination toward China has caused trouble for the country.

Conclusion

However, seeing Maldives President Mohammed Muizzu step to ask Indian army personnel from the country to stop any interference from any foreign power in their internal affairs should come as a sort of relief for the Indian government. As the Indian government approval of extending a budget support of US$ 50 million to Maldives has been hailed by Maldives Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer as a true gesture of goodwill which signifies and strengthens the longstanding friendship between India and Maldives during his visit to India in May this year.

The visit of the Maldives President Muizzu for the swearing-in ceremony of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his third consecutive term on June 04, 2024 has raised hopes of the return of normalcy in relations between India and Maldives.

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