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For Maldives under Muizzu..India or China, choose it will have to

by Priti Prakash | PUBLISHED: Nov 22, 2023, 2:51 am IST

Priti Prakash
Priti Prakash

The swearing in of Muizzu as President of Maldives is yet a turning of another leaf as much for India Maldives relations as for regional strategic dynamics. Indian former minister Kiren Rijuju who attended the ceremony as rep of Modi government was told in no uncertain terms that Indian Defense personnel should move out of the island country.

“The Government of Maldives has formally requested Government of India to withdraw its military personnel from the Maldives," a November 18 statement noted. "The country will not have any foreign military personnel in the Maldives," he said in his first speech.

The President, although appreciating India’s role in monitoring and combating drug trafficking, India’s statement emphasized that it was agreed that the two governments would discuss workable solutions for continued cooperation through the use of these platforms.   

Muizzu romped the elections in September pitched against Ibrahim Solih on the slogan of ‘India Out’ and even though he professes that no foreign forces will be stationed in Maldives, being a protege of former President Yameen, his pro China leanings are no secrets to anyone. The fact is that whereas China has heavily invested in Maldives in form of infrastructure and investments worth $1.5 billion and a BRI project, India has built people to people ties and given $1.4 billion for loan paybacks and projects of community development. New Delhi also has plans to build a new cancer hospital and cricket stadium, to develop a port, and to upgrade an airport. By 2018, Chinese loans had saddled Malé with nearly $1.5 billion in debt—a high figure for a nation with a GDP of less than $9 billion.
Incidently Muizzu fought elections as a Yameen proxy who is convicted of corruption charges & is serving a jail term. The swearing in ceremony was attended by high level reps from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Seychelles along with India and China.   

Being a neigbour of India at 2142 km in the Indian Ocean needless to say it falls within India's sphere of influence and is of great strategic value to India. Interestingly Maldives is also the island of strategic rivalry between China & India. India’s ties with Male are much older than anyone. It has security presence there in terms of 3 helicopters and 75 Naval personnel. International shipping lanes criss cross the nation's chain of 1,193 coral islands that stretch around 800 km.

Reminding the role played by India when Male witnessed a coup and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rushed in troops to help the country out the a crisis, Rajiv Dogra, former Indian Diplomat and Foreign Affairs expert feels we will have to wait a little to see how it goes but 'it will certainly not be in Maldives own interest to have a strained relationship with India'. He says, 'Insofar as China is concerned whatever China may say or do in terms of giving money or some occasional help the fact that China is far too distant to invest heavily in. In case of some commercial loans it has the example of Sri Lanka.

‘Once President of Maldives settles down in office he will have to take decisions that are pragmatic and not based on mere rhetoric,’ he says.

Ridden with the possibility of Male swinging between India and China given the leanings of the party in power, former Ambassador and Strategic Analyst Anil Trigunayat believes that extreme choices for small nations are often counter productive. 'Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and if it completely swings it might create  a bottleneck in the Maritime domain. And given their past experience with China they might course correct . India will have to get used to this new normal in the neighbourhood where swinging  political fortunes of party in power will have to be dealt with on 'as is where basis'.

It will be seen how Muizzu seeks to strike a balance between regional rivals. How much will he successfully play China India Checkers. Afterall he will have to have the interest of his countrymen first, hopefully.
Priti Prakash
Priti Prakash

Political Commentator, Interviewer, moderator and Foreign Correspondent. With more than 20 years in journalism and experience of both print and electronic medium, she is Editor FacenFacts, news website.