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The way ahead for India-Maldives ties

India has to take a pragmatic approach toward the Maldives to preserve its interests in the Indian Ocean

The way ahead for India-Maldives ties
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

The ongoing crisis in bilateral relations between India and Maldives could have been avoided if both sides had given diplomacy a chance to work out a compromise beneficial to both.  As the bigger country, it was incumbent on India to show sensitivity in dealing with a smaller neighbor.

Mohamed Muizzu was elected as Maldivian President in September 2023. During his election campaign, Muizzu and his rival Ibrahim Mohamed Solih contested over how to calibrate Maldives’s relations with India and China. While Solih, who served as president from 2018, pursued an “India-First policy,” Muizzi promised to remove  “Indian military presence” in the country. 

This so-called military presence included two helicopters primarily used for medical emergencies, a Dornier aircraft, and a ship for hydrographic survey, with 77 military personnel.

After being elected, Muizzu had to be seen as delivering on his promise, at least in part. He formally raised the matter with Indian minister Kiren Rijiju, who represented India at the swearing-in on 17 November 2023. 

New Delhi could have proposed a face-saving solution by suggesting the immediate withdrawal of the two military helicopters and replacing them with those from a civilian Indian firm. Both countries could have agreed to form a joint committee to find the best solution for the remaining issues. This approach would have allowed Muizzu to tell his voters that he had delivered on his pledge.

However, for unknown reasons, New Delhi chose to appear tough,  and the two countries agreed to form a core group to handle the matter. Obviously, that group has not made much progress.

Malé had proposed a visit to India by Muizzu immediately after his swearing-in. But New Delhi gave a cold shoulder to the proposal, and suitable dates were not fixed. 

Meanwhile, China seized the opportunity and President Xi Jinping invited Muizzu for a state visit this month. Before going to China, Muizzu visited Türkiye and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Traditionally, a newly elected Maldivian President makes his first official visit to India.

The new Maldivian president chose Türkiye over China because he reportedly did not want Beijing to be perceived as his first port of call.

Muizzu’s visit to China from 8-12 January coincides with the anti-India sentiment playing out publicly in the Maldives. It is obvious that China has watched with glee the tweets by three deputy ministersMariyum Shiuna, Malsha Shareef, and Hassan Zihaninsulting India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, alongside the sharp reactions on social media in India, including travel agencies canceling resort bookings in the Maldives.

The timing was perfect from China’s point of view. 

The Maldivian government was quick to attempt damage control, suspending the three ministers who put out offensive tweets, including one who was to accompany Muizzu to China. The actions taken against them, however, are inadequate as they were only ‘suspended’ and not sacked. 

With India-Maldives relations hitting a new low, China rolled out the red carpet to Muizzu, who described his hosts as “one of our closest allies and development partners.”. He praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), invited Chinese investors to invest in Maldives, and made a special request for more tourists from China. He signed 20 agreements with China as officially announced.

This is playing out as Muizzu is still in China. We will know about the details of any agreements signed when the visit concludes on 12 January. 

In the larger context, India and China have been in competition in the Maldives. 

India had an early start as the first country to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the Maldives when it became independent from the United Kingdom in 1965.  

China established diplomatic relations with the archipelago state in 1972, starting its embassy in Male in 2011, two years after the Maldives set up a resident embassy in Beijing in 2009. 

The website of the Indian High Commission in Male portrays a multi-dimensional bilateral relationship, with India having promptly responded to the Maldives’ needs on various occasions. 

In 1988, India deployed its military to thwart a coup attempt by Sri Lankan mercenaries at the behest of a Maldivian group. The military was withdrawn immediately after the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was restored. 

India also provided assistance during the tsunami in 2004, the water crisis in 2014, and the recent covid-19 pandemic.

However, in terms of major projects, China has been more proactive, undertaking initiatives such as constructing the foreign office, the national museum, and the 1.4 km-long, 20-meter-wide China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.

China’s investments in the Maldives amount to $1.37 billion, accounting for 20% of the country’s public debt. In comparison, the outstanding debt to Saudi Arabia is $124 million and to India $123 million. The Maldives needs to bear in mind the bitter lesson learned from Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, given to China on a long lease in lieu of repayment of loans.

China’s state-controlled Global Times has lauded Muizzu for adopting a “Maldives First” policy, instead of “India First” or “China First” policy. It also suggested China’s willingness to collaborate with India on projects in the Maldives.

India obviously understands China’s long-term “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean and will take necessary measures to safeguard its interests. It is now evident, with the advantage of hindsight, that slogans such as “India First” can boomerang.  

The mocking reference to Prime Minister Modi in posts by Shiuna on X (erstwhile Twitter), who previously attended a course at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, was in bad taste. However, India must strategize on how the mindset of such people can be changed.

In conclusion, it is not logical for the Maldives to oscillate between two policies—a pro-China and a pro-India stance. The Maldives falls within the security perimeter of India, and it is possible to calibrate a policy that does not cause any concern to India without displeasing China. 

New Delhi can discreetly lend a helping hand. New Delhi should note the sensitivities of a smaller neighbor. While the Maldives has only 27 coral atolls lying across 900 km north-south and a population of only half a million, its extended economic zone is about a million sq km, and China will do its utmost to insert it into the ‘string of pearls’.

India’s boycotting of Maldives as a tourist destination, of course, will hurt the island nation. But China might be able to send more tourists and gradually if it puts in more money for developing tourism the shortfall from India might not matter much. 

The Indian tourism agencies, however, should heed the call of their Maldivian counterparts to send in more tourists, resuming the normal operation of tourist travel to the Maldives as soon as convenient.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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