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India-Maldives row – A perfect Chinese plan to sour relations of two close neighbors


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We are witnessing a rapid decline in ties between India and the Maldives, just a month after Prime Minister Modi met with the newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu, should set alarm bells ringing. The trigger came from tweets by three Maldivian Ministers, attacking PM Modi for promoting the Lakshadweep islands during his recent sojourn there at a perceived cost to the Maldives and for his close ties with Israel; these Ministers also made derogatory remarks about Indians.

The tweets have been deleted, the Ministers have been suspended, and the Maldivian government has distanced itself from them, but the damage has already been done. The respective Ambassadors were summoned. Hurt Indians have crowded social media sites calling for an economic “boycott” of the Maldives, which will have a strong ramifications.

Interestingly, the India-Maldives controversy comes at a time when Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu started a visit to China, a country that backed him against his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen. Muizzu has also been requesting more Chinese tourists to visit the Maldives.

China sees the Maldives as strategic to its geopolitical interests and has been trying to edge out India, which has been a traditional friend of the Maldives.

However, the main reasons are more profound and could have a wider impact on India’s relations with Maldives as well as its neighbourhood given the changing government in Male. On the back of PPM’s “India Out” campaign, Mr Muizzu came to power. Despite its disappointment with the win of ‘anti-Indian forces’, given the warm relationship it shared with his predecessor Ibrahim Solih, the Modi government sent a Minister to his swearing in, and there was a Modi-Muizzu meet at the COP28.

Mr. Muizzu, however, has chosen Turkey as his first bilateral destination and is now on a visit to China, becoming the first president not to prioritize India over any other country. Even President Yameen, who began the “India Out” movement and cozied up to Beijing, visited Delhi first in 2014. Mr. Muizzu has continued to press India on the withdrawal of its military personnel, even though India has clarified their role.

With the calls for boycotts and rising hypernationalistic rhetoric, Delhi and Male need to take a step back and reassess their responses. Mr. Muizzu can ill-afford to antagonise India, given its proximity, economic might and historical position as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean, something Maldives has relied on. India too must see the futility of muscling in a much smaller neighbour, however egregious the provocation.

The last few years of ties between the Solih government and Delhi show the benefits of a stronger relationship: India’s infrastructure forays and development projects in the islands, an intense strategic partnership, support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and cooperation on the international stage. For India, in a region that sees several elections this year, it is paramount to ensure that domestic political changes in the neighbourhood do not change the basic structure of bilateral ties, or affect regional stability.

How Maldives has started acting weird since the President Muizzu assumed to power

Mohamed Muizzu chose Turkey for his first official visit after assuming the office of President of Maldives. He didn’t come to India after assuming office as his first foreign destination, unlike past Maldivian Presidents.

The Maldives did not participate in a meeting of the NSA-level Colombo Security Conclave in which it is a member-state, along with India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. Earlier Muizzu had vowed to change the Maldives’s ‘India First’ policy adopted under his predecessor Solih and remove Indian military personnel from the island nation.

The Maldives has decided not to renew the hydrography cooperation agreement with India after its expiry on 7 June 2024. It was signed in 2019 that allowed India to carry out hydrographic surveys in the territorial waters of the Maldives, mapping underwater surfaces and studying reefs, lagoons, coastlines and other physical features.

Last year, the International Day of Yoga event, organised by the Indian High Commission in the capital Male, was held at the Galolhu Stadium and was stormed by around 150-strong mob. The mob attacked participants practising yoga and vandalised property.

Multiple Islamic groups and supporters had posted about the protest on social media much before the event date. The attack was seen as fuelled by anti-India sentiments with a larger geopolitical game of China in the background.

How India has reacted so far?

India has made clear that it would prefer to continue strong engagement with the Maldives and not want to risk its position as a leading partner and has responded by funding big connectivity projects in Maldives.

There is a speculation in India that China is developing a naval base in the Maldives. In 2018, China planned an ocean observatory in Makunudhoo Atoll, north of Male — not far from India’s Lakshadweep Islands.

China is unique in using its marine and seabed surveys to advance a largely strategic agenda. It has an expansive oceanographic research programme, in which ‘scientific research vessels’ in particular the Shi Yan Class of oceanographic survey vessels and the Yuan Wang series of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance ships are regularly deployed in the Indian Ocean.

China’s increasing influence is creating problems for India

India has been concerned about the increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives, including large infrastructure projects and loans. The growing entanglement of the region’s smaller states in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other Chinese projects. China’s desire to settle border disputes with its neighbours (excluding India), as seen in the case of Bhutan, is also a strategy to win over the region.

Muizzu, rode on his flagship ‘Indian Out Campaign’ to come to power, which basically wanted Indian military troops out of the Maldives.

China, which had always been looking to make inroads in the region, recognised the opportunity and capitalised on the situation by pushing several infrastructure and connectivity projects, including the Male-Thilafushi project under its broader “string of pearls” plan.

Going by what experts say, the latest row over Lakshadweep seems like a chapter from the same anti-India book as the 2022 Yoga Day attack.


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