Maldives under President-elect Muizzu: Will ‘India First’ momentum remain unchanged?
Regardless of whether Male is governed by democratic forces or authoritarian regimes, geography and mutual dependence will continue to be primary factors shaping the island nation's foreign policy towards New Delhi
The Maldives recently concluded its second round of Presidential elections on October 1, 2023, with Mohamed Muizzu of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-People’s National Congress (PNC) emerging as the winner, securing 54% of the votes against the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
The elections took an unexpected turn on September 9 when no candidate managed to secure the required 50% of the vote, sparking intense debate on key policy areas such as security, economics, and foreign relations.
Some in the global media even speculated that the new government might align itself more closely with major Asian power blocs.
Maldives’ geostrategic significance
Analysing the Maldives' geographical and geostrategic location offers valuable insights into whether the new government in Male would be willing to seek support from extra-regional powers while potentially side-lining India.
Despite being a small island nation, the Maldives has maintained an independent foreign policy since gaining independence in 1965, capturing the attention of major global powers due to its strategic location along global shipping routes and its significance for strategic purposes.
However, India holds a unique position in the Maldives' foreign policies, owing to its geographical and cultural proximity.
India's special role in the Maldives is underpinned by mutual security concerns, as evidenced by India's prompt assistance during critical moments such as the 1988 coup attempt, the 2004 Tsunami, and the 2014 water crisis.
The significance of India for the Maldives could not be overlooked during President Abdulla Yameen's tenure (2013-2018), which strained India-Maldives relations due to his anti-democratic measures, prompting diplomatic opposition from India.
Over the course of those five years, President Yameen visited India twice and emphasised the interconnectedness of Maldives' security with India's, stating, “The security of Maldives is intimately linked with the security of India, which is why the Maldives prioritizes an 'India-first' foreign policy.”
This commitment to India was reaffirmed during the visit of Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid to India in July 2023, where he praised India as a time-tested friend and first responder in times of crisis.
Considering the historical trends and the consistent patterns in the Maldives' foreign policy towards India, regardless of whether Male is governed by democratic forces or authoritarian regimes, geography and mutual dependence appear to be primary factors shaping the country's future foreign policy.
In light of this, it would be challenging for President-elect Muizzu to substantially deviate from the Maldives' established approach towards India.
As steadfast allies, India and the Maldives share profound ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, and economic ties. Their formal diplomatic relations date back to 1965, when India was among the first nations to recognise the Maldives as an independent and sovereign state following its liberation from British rule.
Over the years, both countries have engaged in frequent interactions at both the political and grassroots levels, aimed at promoting mutual benefits. The consistent high-level political visits since 1990 underscore the mutual trust, friendship, understanding, and interdependence between the two nations.
Despite limited resources and heightened vulnerability to the impacts of global warming, the Maldives, like its fellow Indian neighbours, has received extensive material, financial, and technical assistance from India to bolster the consolidation of democracy and accelerate sustainable economic growth.
India stands as the Maldives' most significant development partner, providing substantial support for a wide array of community development and infrastructure projects since 1990.
India also holds the distinction of being the Maldives' third-largest trading partner, a status poised for further enhancement due to recent developments.
Notably, direct cargo vessel services have been operational since 2020, and the introduction of Line of Credit Projects in 2021 has fostered deeper economic cooperation.
Furthermore, the implementation of visa-free entry for Indian business purposes in 2022, along with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on duty-free tuna exports to India in the same year, has strengthened trade ties between the two nations.
India further solidifies its position as the largest investor in the Maldives, with major Indian private conglomerates such as the Tata Group, GMR Group, Shriram Group, Bommidala, and Suzlon making substantial investments in the country.
Path forward in India-Maldives ties
In a bid to garner public support for its foreign policy, the PPM-PNC adopted a nationalistic stance, emphasising the cultivation of robust and balanced relationships with friendly nations while safeguarding the Maldives' independence. It emphasised that the government would not exclusively align with any single nation.
Despite the proposal to recalibrate their foreign policy in response to shifting geopolitical dynamics in the Indian Ocean region, India remained at the heart of the PPM-PNC's external policy.
During the presidential campaign, Muizzu put forth a series of action-oriented policies aimed at strengthening bilateral relations with India while also highlighting perceived gaps in Solih's foreign policy. Some international media outlets viewed these critiques as being critical of India.
For instance, the withdrawal of foreign military personnel from the Maldives featured prominently in the PPM-PNC's campaign. In response to this narrative, President Solih clarified that no foreign military personnel were stationed in the Maldives for military operations.
Instead, there were only a few Indian helicopter pilots and aeronautic technicians stationed in the Maldives to operate the Dornier aircraft and two helicopters gifted to the Maldives by the Indian government. Importantly, these Indian military personnel operated under the command of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).
Interestingly, in contrast to his campaign rhetoric, President-elect Muizzu clarified post-election that any potential withdrawal of foreign military personnel would be carried out in accordance with established protocols, refraining from naming any specific country.
This clarification stems from the 2020 defence agreement between the US and the Maldives, which has led to joint military training exercises between the MNDF and the US Military since 2021.
Moreover, in April 2022, the Maldives entered into a State Partnership Programme with the US---aimed at enhancing the capacity and readiness of the Maldives' defence sector.
In the aftermath of the election, despite negative projections by some international media outlets, the new government hinted at continuity in Maldivian foreign policy, with minor adjustments in economic strategies to attract investments beyond India.
PNC Vice President, Mohamed Hussain Shareef (Mundhu), expressed Male’s strong commitment to collaborate with India on matters of safety and security in the Indian Ocean, emphasising India's continued pivotal role in the region.
The Maldives is poised to remain “one of India's strongest allies in the international community,” with hints that President-elect Muizzu would maintain the tradition of selecting New Delhi as his inaugural foreign destination and honouring all projects funded by India.
Meanwhile, India wasted no time in extending its congratulations to President-elect Muizzu, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking to X on October 1 to reaffirm New Delhi's unwavering commitment to strengthening the long-standing India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing cooperation across the Indian Ocean Region.
It is abundantly evident that in the wake of the global economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, China’s aggressive move in the Indo-Pacific region, lessons learned from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the lukewarm response of major powers, excluding India, coupled with the pressing challenges of climate change, the Maldives may prioritise pursuing economic benefits from other nations without compromising India's security concerns.
In the foreseeable future, Male under the new government will apparently continue adhering to its 'India First' foreign policy.
**The writer is a Research Fellow at the MP-IDSA, New Delhi; views expressed are personal.