A New Leader in Maldives and Stakes for India 

 By Danish Yousuf
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Abstract

The recent election in Maldives, resulting in the victory of Mohamed Muizzu as the new President, has significant implications for India’s strategic interests in the region. This victory marks a shift in the political landscape, where the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, known for his pro-India stance, was defeated. Given his party’s historical inclinations, Muizzu’s win raises concerns about a potential shift towards China. This change underscores the complex interplay between domestic politics and international relations in Maldives. The competition between India and China for regional influence is evident, with both nations closely observing the developments. India’s proactive engagement in the Maldives, both politically and economically, becomes imperative to safeguard its interests in the Indian Ocean amidst China’s growing assertiveness. This article delves into the evolving political landscape in the Maldives and its ramifications for India’s regional diplomacy. 

Key Words: Maldives, Elections, IOR, China, Geopolitics

Introduction

Maldives has chosen Mohamed Muizzu as its new President, defeating the incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the second round run-off mandated after the inconclusive outcome of the first round held on 30th September (Sun Intl. 2023). Muizzu, a member of the opposition PPM-PNC coalition, emerged victorious, securing 54 percent, 8 percent more than his MDP opponent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who secured 46 percent votes (Minivan Noos, 2023). During his first press briefing as the president-elect, Muizzu called President Solih to use his executive authority to move the opposition coalition leader, former president Abdulla Yameen, to house arrest. 

            The Island nation, consisting of 26 atolls spanning an area of 90,000 square kilometres, occupies a crucial location in the Indian Ocean and intersects crucial maritime routes. Situated to the southwest of Sri Lanka, Maldives has attracted interest from large nations such as India and China. The looming contest underscored the growing importance of geopolitics in Maldives, alongside domestic concerns, as India and China aspire for influence in the region (Markar, 2023). 

The Election Landscape

            The 2018 Presidential elections, which brought the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) back to power, marked a significant geopolitical shift and favoured India while posing a setback for China. During Abdulla Yameen Gayoom’s presidency from 2013 to 2018, Maldives leaned closer to China, engaging in projects like the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and pursuing a free trade agreement with China (Ghafoor, MA, 2023). In contrast, the Solih-led administration maintained a strong alignment with India, following an ‘India First’ foreign policy that complemented India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ approach (Neelima, 2023). 

            Yameen, who once championed an ‘India Out’ movement to reduce India’s influence in the region, had found himself on the sidelines after being sentenced to 11 years and fined for corruption. However, the most notable development occurred in August 2023 when the Maldivian Supreme Court ruled against the former President that he could not contest elections (Sun International, 2023.). Muizzu’s previous role as the construction minister under the mentorship of Yameen did not naturally position him for this role. Yameen’s conviction paved the way for Muizzu to lead the party as his representative in an election centred around the strategic alignment of the atoll with China or India. Thus, it can be argued that the intensity of relations between India and Maldives has witnessed fluctuations, often depending on the party in power in Male. In fact, most global and Indian media outlets dubbed the results as ‘pro-China verdict’ (Hindustan Times, 2023).  

Geopolitical Implications: India vs China

            While India has consistently considered Maldives as an essential player in the Indian Ocean and has given the latter appropriate priority in its neighbourhood, Beijing, in recent years, has intensified its involvement with the Island nation. This signifies China’s intentions and priorities in the Indian Ocean as part of its 21st Century Silk Route Initiative, which constitutes the maritime component of the BRI (Mitra, 2022). India has maintained its position as the dominant regional power for years now, owing to its significant influence in the subregion, more recently, through implementing its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. India has maintained its position despite efforts from China to establish a foothold in Maldives’ political landscape, mainly through significant infrastructure building (Didi, 2022). While not explicitly adopting an anti-China stance, the Solih administration did uphold amicable yet cautious diplomatic ties with Beijing. This cautious approach responds to New Delhi’s apprehensions regarding China’s underlying intentions, precisely, the fear that China might exploit its economic influence to entangle India’s neighbouring nations in financial obligations (Ghafoor, 2023).  

            During an event in March 2022, Former President Abdulla Yameen, while speaking at an event at Naifaru in Lhaviyani atoll focusing on the ‘India out’ policy, stated that if his party came to power, they would terminate all agreements with India. (Avas, 2022). Under the existing agreements, he claimed that Indian naval ships could access the Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone by just informing rather than seeking permission from the Maldivian authorities. Yameen was hinting at the Uthuru Thila Falhu facility, which the Indian and Maldivian governments maintain that it will help the latter surveil its waters better (Maldives Financial Review). The main issue dominating the debates in Male regarding its relations with India is what the opposition calls the ‘controversial’ military presence of India on the Island. While the incumbent government has actively pursued such interest, the main opposition led by Yameen has urged the government to reduce these ties (Ramachandran, 2022). 

            In an op-ed (Sun International, 2023) released on 1st October in a local newspaper, the embassy of China emphasised the diverse collaboration cooperation between the two countries. It specifically pointed out that apart from economic cooperation, Maldives and China share similar views on many regional and international issues. One prominent example is their alignment on the Taiwan issue, with the Maldives firmly supporting a one-China policy.

India’s Strategic Role in Maldives 

            Maldives heavily relies on trilateral maritime security cooperation with India and Sri Lanka to combat maritime threats like piracy, illegal fishing, and trafficking. Maldives must protect its Exclusive Economic Zone due to its dependence on maritime resources for food security and exports. Beyond security, in recent times, India has played a crucial role in providing healthcare, including the Covid 19 vaccines, supporting medical treatments, and Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid’s campaign for the presidency of the UN General Assembly. Consequently, commentators framed the Solih-Muizzu run-off as a competition between India and China. They have attempted to depict the outcome as a “loss” for India.

A Reflection on Domestic Politics  

            While Abdulla Yameen and his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) appear to focus on India’s presence in Maldives, its primary objective is to undermine the MDP government. The PPM has been inciting the same level of discontent with the precise aim of offsetting the MDP government as it did in 2012. Analysts concur that the ‘India Out’ campaign initially served as a political tool to rally Maldivian citizens against India but has gradually lost its momentum. This decline can be attributed to the recognition by political parties across the spectrum in the Island nation that boycotting India is impractical (Banka, 2023). 

            In January 2022, the Maldivian Government proposed legislation to criminalise the ‘India Out’ campaign. While the proposed ‘bill to prevent any actions detrimental to Maldives’ foreign relations did not explicitly give reference to India or the India Out campaign, its potential enactment would lead to penalties, including imprisonment of six months for individuals involved in actions like defaming Indian officials on social media (Awas, 2022). The bill, however, has faced delays due to infighting within the MDP’s Solih and Nasheed factions. During Yameen’s presidency, which was openly hostile towards India, China made substantial inroads into Maldives. Yameen permitted China to undertake major infrastructure projects. When Mohamed Solih assumed power, it was discovered that the Chinese had overcharged Maldivians (Gan, 2020). This move appeared to drive the Maldives further into a ‘debt trap’ with China. 

The Imperative of India’s Proactive Engagement 

            Prime Minister Modi was among the first to congratulate the president-elect. From the Indian perspective, the Indian Ocean is of utmost importance. Hence, it has been proactive   and has accorded priority to maritime diplomacy and initiatives in the region. This occurs amid rising Chinese assertiveness within the IOR and growing interests of various regional actors, in Maldives (Mitra, 2023). In the context of China, India’s worries are real. Maldives holds immense strategic importance due to its proximity to India’s west coast. “There is nothing India can do in the Maldives to affect Chinese security, but there is a lot the Chinese can do in the Maldives to affect Indian security.” (Joshi, 2020) The reality about the foreign policy of Maldives is that it is intricately intertwined with domestic politics, ultimately shaping its alignment, but isn’t that true globally?

            New Delhi must avoid giving the impression that it favours specific factions within the Maldivian political landscape. Now, it is President-elect Muizzu’s responsibility to fulfil the pledge of maintaining strong ties between India and the Maldives. Notably, he has not criticised India in the same manner his party has done. President-elect Muizzu may need to strike a balance between India, its closest neighbour, and engage with China and the United States, both closely observing regional developments. Both Delhi and Male must approach these interests without resorting to the ‘zero-sum’ game, a mindset that has strained their relations in the past.

References 

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