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India-Maldives Relations at Crossroads: Navigating Shifts Amid China's Rising Influence

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  Kathmandu      January 24 2024

By Tajul Islam

In recent times, the diplomatic ties between India and the Maldives have undergone a significant downturn, raising concerns about the future trajectory of their relationship. The strained relations reached a new low following a controversial episode involving derogatory comments made by Maldives' deputy minister regarding Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Lakshadweep and Maldives' call for the withdrawal of Indian troops by March 15, 2024. Concurrently, China-Maldives relations have experienced a remarkable upswing, culminating in the establishment of a "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership" during the Maldives President's visit to China in the second week of January.

The delicate balance that the Maldives once maintained between India and China now seems to be tilting towards China, raising questions about the future of India-Maldives relations. The 2023 Presidential election in the Maldives was characterized by international media as a contest between India and China, with the two leading candidates aligning themselves clearly with the major powers. At that time president Mohamed Salih, known for his "India First" policy, lost to Mohamed Muizzu, who campaigned on a platform advocating an "India Out" stance. Muizzu's victory was seen as a shift away from India, leading to a strained relationship between the two nations.

India's discontent with Mohamed Muizzu's election was evident when it sent a low-profile minister to his swearing-in ceremony, in stark contrast to Prime Minister Modi's attendance at the oath-taking ceremony of the former President Salih. The new Maldivian president further strained the relationship by formally requesting the recall of Indian military staff during a meeting the day after the ceremony. Despite subsequent attempts to salvage the relationship, the outcome remains uncertain.

President Mohamed Muizzu seems determined to reduce his country's reliance on India, evident in his call for the withdrawal of Indian military presence and the decision not to renew a hydrographic survey deal with India. The termination of agreements, including the hydrographic survey deal signed during Prime Minister Modi's 2019 visit, signals a shift away from India and aligns with Muizzu's electoral commitment to sever ties with foreign parties, particularly India.

India interprets the withdrawal of Indian hydrographic ships from Maldivian waters as a move that supports China's marine surveys, posing a potential threat to India's strategic interests. Despite the challenges, India remains committed to fostering a positive relationship with the Maldives, emphasizing its "Neighbourhood First" policy. The ongoing dispute regarding the deployment of Indian troops in the islands is a point of contention, with India expressing hope for a resolution.

President Mohamed Muizzu's recent state visit to China adds another layer to the evolving geopolitical landscape. The visit resulted in the implementation of the Maldives-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and collaboration under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for key infrastructure projects. The signing of 20 agreements covering various sectors underscores China's expanding influence in the region. While concerns exist, the absence of major defense or security shifts in these agreements provides some reassurance for India in the short term.

However, Mohamed Muizzu's pivot towards China carries inherent risks, including the potential for falling into a Chinese debt trap and concerns about corruption in Chinese projects. The Maldives already faces substantial Chinese debt, with over $1.3 billion owed to China, constituting a significant portion of its total debt. Muizzu's overreliance on Chinese support may also trigger a backlash from the public, as seen during the presidency of his coalition partner, former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who faced criticism for aligning closely with China and joining the Belt and Road initiative.

The outlook for future India-Maldives relations appears challenging, with India grappling with a complex geopolitical scenario. Muizzu's commitment to non-interference by foreign powers in the Maldives' internal affairs may offer some relief for India, but the prospect of the Maldives becoming another pearl in China's "string of pearls" surrounding India remains a concern. The recent election results, where the pro-Indian candidate Mohamed Salih secured 46 percent of the votes, indicates a divided sentiment within the Maldivian population.

As India navigates this intricate landscape, it must consider the economic ramifications of strained relations. The Maldives, heavily dependent on tourism, cannot afford to overlook India entirely, especially as it seeks to strengthen foreign exchange reserves for debt repayment. The potential impact on the Maldives' economy is substantial if Indian tourists choose alternative destinations, considering that India was the primary source of tourists for the Maldives in 2023.

In this situation, the future of India-Maldives relations hangs in the balance, shaped by the evolving dynamics of the region. India's strategic presence in the Maldives remains crucial for its broader Indian Ocean strategy, while China's increasing influence poses challenges that cannot be ignored. The delicate dance between these major powers and the decisions made by President Mohamed Muizzu will determine the course of this complex geopolitical relationship. As the world watches, India must navigate these challenges with diplomacy and foresight, seeking to preserve its interests while acknowledging the changing dynamics in the Indian Ocean region.

Author's bio: Tajul Islam, a senior journalist and Special Correspondent of Weekly Blitz writes on a broad-range of issues in local and international media. Follow him on X @tajulraj1