No Option For Muizzu But to Maintain Functional Relationship With India: Ex-Intel Officer
Both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were among the first world leaders to congratulate Maldives’ President-elect Mohamed Muizzu after his election win.
Maldives’ incoming President Mohamed Muizzu has urged the outgoing administration headed by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to put a hold on “execution of bilateral conventions and agreements”, according to a letter cited in Maldivian media on Thursday.
The decision comes as the Maldivian President-elect doubled down on his election campaign pledge
to expel foreign troops from the Indian Ocean nation since winning the presidential runoff last weekend.
Muizzu, who represents a coalition of Progressive Party of Maldives and People’s National Congress (PNC), has been a backer of the ‘India Out’ campaign while in opposition. New Delhi has denounced the ‘India Out’ campaign, amid threats against Indian diplomats and interests on the archipelago.
India is the biggest defense capacity-building and a major development partner of the Maldives.
Since Muizzu’s election, the I
ndian government has called upon the incoming administration
in Male to “collaborate closely to address shared challenges confronting our region”.
“The focus of our partnership with Maldives has always been on capacity building and working together to address our shared challenges and priorities, you know, including security challenges and priorities,” Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson told a regular briefing in New Delhi on Thursday
Sputnik India spoke to Colonel (retired) R Hariharan, formerly the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka and a fellow at Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S).
Sputnik India: Why is Maldives critical for Indian interests in the Indian Ocean?
Hariharan: Maintaining good relations with India is more important for Maldives as it depends upon India for almost everything as the smallest country in Asia with half a million population lacks resources, even freshwater. Tourism is its mainstay.
Maldives is a chain of 26 atolls, stretching from Ihavandhippolhu Atoll in the north to Addu Atoll in the south, spanning 90,000 sq km of territory across the Equator in the Arabian Sea. It is located 750 km Southwest of India and Sri Lanka.
Historically, Maldives has ethnic, religious and cultural connectivity with India and Sri Lanka. Maldives’ language Dhivehi is a dialect of Sinhala and with a script derived from Arabic. In fact, Minicoy the southernmost and second largest island in the Indian territory of Lakshadweep, has around 12,000 Mahl people of Maldives ethnicity.
Maldives-India relations have been close since colonial rule ended in 1965 and Maldives became a republic. India that responded immediately to President Maumoon Gayoom’s call for assistance to thwart a coup attempt in Maldives in 1988. India had been swift to provide help and succour during the 2004 tsunami and when the country faced a drinking water crisis in 2014.
The Indian Ocean’s strategic importance has gone up after President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched in 2013 to increase China’s strategic outreach across continents.
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) forms the oceanic part of BRI infrastructural connectivity. It enables China to secure passage for its international maritime trade to pass through bottlenecks in the Indian Ocean.
Maldives and Sri Lanka are important pivots for the success of the MSR, more so after the Quad framework
started taking shape to check increasing Chinese strategic presence in Indian Ocean.
President Xi Jinping was the first Chinese head of state to visit Maldives since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1972. His visit to Maldives on May 15, 2014, on his way to Sri Lanka and India, underlined the island nation’s importance in Xi’s strategic outreach under BRI.
Though Chinese companies had been involved in project contracting in Maldives since 1985, it made a quantum jump after former President Abdulla Yameen (a political ally of Muizzu), with a strong pro-China stance and marked hostility towards India came to power in 2013. Not only has Yameen responded to Xi’s invitation to join the MSR during his visit but also signed a free trade pact with China a few months later.
During Yameen’s tenure as President till 2018, a number of Chinese infrastructure and investment projects were executed. Male-Hulhumale bridge conceived in 2007. It was constructed by China Harbour Engineering Company at a cost of $210 million.
Similarly, Beijing Urban Construction Group replaced Indian contractor GMR, to complete the stalled Male International Airport expansion project at Hulhumale in 2018.
Sputnik India: How strong is the institutional defense partnership between India?
: India-Maldives institutional defence partnership
is well established.
Even during Abdulla Yameen’s rule tilted in favour of China, he signed the Indo-Maldivian Action Plan for defence. Under the agreement, India would install 26 radars on all the atolls to link up with the Indian coastal command. Indian Navy and the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) carry out joint surveillance and patrolling activities.
India-Maldives relations got a further boost after Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted the “Neighbourhood First” Policy when he came to power in 2014.
India is involved in a number of major infrastructure projects like the Greater Male Connectivity project, cargo vessel services and capacity building and training of MNDF and Maldivian civil servants in India and the Gulhifalhu Port Project. Indian defence forces and MNDF regularly hold joint exercises.
India has supplied a Dornier surveillance aircraft to Maldives to keep an eye on foreign vessels traversing the Indian Ocean as well as casualty evacuation from isolated islands and prevent poaching and drug smuggling in Maldivian waters.
After the QUAD framework for Indo-Pacific security, the importance of the US military base at the atoll of Diego Garcia in Chagos archipelago, around 1,713 km from Maldives, has increased. This base was used during the US operations in Afghanistan.
Sputnik India: Should Muizzu be seen as pro-China? Do you expect Maldives to go closer to China as opposed to 'India First' policy of the outgoing Solih administration?
Hariharan: As explained earlier, President Muizzu has no option but to maintain a functional relationship with India, though he might be dubbed as pro-China (though he maintains he is pro-Maldives).
Muizzu has used the fictitious rhetoric of presence of foreign soldiers (a euphemism for Indian troops) during his election campaign. The Indian High Commission in Male has condemned such a malicious media campaign
China has definitely staged a political comeback with the success of the Muizzu. His primary election campaign theme was removing Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives.
When the Indian Ambassador Munu Mahawar called upon Muizzu, Muizzu urged New Delhi to respect the decision of the people of Maldives to protect their sovereignty and independence.
At the meeting, he expressed confidence that India would cooperate on this matter. He also expressed hope that the Indian government would facilitate the easy repayment of loans taken by the current government of outgoing President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
In his remarks, the Indian Ambassador assured Muizzu of India's support and cooperation in various development fields in the Maldives. He also affirmed that India would fully respect the Maldives' sovereignty and expressed readiness to negotiate facilitating loan repayment.
We can expect Muizzu to take calculated steps to favour China, in preference to India.