By stoking anti-India sentiments, is Maldivian new government playing with the island nation’s interest?
Indians are aghast at the manner three Maldivian ministers chose to target Prime Minister Modi and Indian citizens in general through their social media posts; even though they have been suspended, the incident has kicked off row with celebrities from cinema and sports coming forward to appeal Indians to “boycott” travels to Maldives as tourists
In pursuance of its foreign policy to secure and promote its national interests, there are times when the government of a country feels restrained to take hard decisions but it so happens that the people of the country come to the scene and send a strong message to the adversary that the country is one and unfriendly actions will not be tolerated. And this is what the people of India have done to Maldives, where a pro-China party, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), won the elections last year by carrying out an “India Out” movement.
Although three Maldivian ministers who made demeaning remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indians in general in the social media, have been suspended, but their derogatory posts have prompted many Indian citizens, including celebrities from the field of sports and cinema like Sachin Tendulkar, Salman Khan, Akshya Kumar, and John Abraham, to appeal Indians to “boycott” travels to the Maldives as tourists and visit, instead, to enchanting tourist places that India has in plenty. This was a strong message to the Maldives, whose economy depends considerably on tourism and the Indian tourists.
More than the restrained diplomatic protest by the Indian diplomatic mission in the Maldives to such remarks by the Maldivian ministers, it is actually the popular angst among the Indians that seems to have forced new President Mohamed Muizzu to “suspend” them. But that does not hide the fact that the Muizzu government’s unfriendly, if not outright hostile, policies towards India, and that too just on the eve of his visit to China.
Muizzu is paying a state visit to China from January 8 to 12. It is important to note here that all the predecessors of Muizzu had considered it a convention to visit India first after assuming office (he took oath as the President in November last year), considering the wide-ranging bilateral ties and the Maldives' proximity to India. But Muizzu has avoided India so far in what appears to be a calculated decision.
Muizzu chose Turkey as his first visit soon after his election. Then he went to the UAE where he had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) on December 1. In this meeting, Muizzu requested Modi to withdraw 77 Indian military personnel from the Maldives and decided to review more than 100 bilateral agreements between the two countries.
In an interview to a leading Indian English newspaper last week, Muizzu pointed out how by withdrawing its military personnel from the Maldives, India would respect the popular mandate that he received last year. As noted already, “India Out” was his chief electoral slogan.
However, it is a myth that India has troops in Maldives, the small archipelagic nation in the Indian Ocean, located barely 70 nautical miles away from India’s Minicoy Island in Lakshadweep. India has gifted some aircraft to the island nation, and for their manning and maintenance, there are 77 military personnel. Maldives does not have the required manpower to do those jobs at present.
The Undersecretary for Public Policy of Muizzu’s Office, Mohamed Firuzul Abdul Khaleel, had admitted in his press conference on November 19 that of the 77 Indian military personnel in the Maldives, “24 manage the first helicopter, 25 Indians to manage the Dornier aircraft, 26 personnel to manage the second helicopter, and two more for maintenance and engineering”.
That these personnel are called troops becomes all the more unfathomable when they are only engaged in humanitarian missions, mostly dedicated to providing medical support in transporting patients from remote 200 inhabited islands to regional healthcare centers or the capital’s hospital and conducting search and rescue operations. Reportedly, there have been a total of 977 such missions since 2019.
Interestingly, it is none other than a PPM government, then led by President Yameen Abdul Gayoom (Muizzu is widely considered to be his proxy, though both have fallen out recently), that had entered into a comprehensive “Action Plan for Defence” with India in 2016. Under this plan, the Indian military personnel were requested to operate the aircraft donated by India till Maldivians were properly trained to operate and manage them.
But that is not all. Muizzu wants a review of this arrangement along with other agreements that India had concluded with the previous Ibrahim Mohamed Solih-led government. As per the comprehensive Action Plan for Defence was signed in April 2016, India provides the largest number of training opportunities for the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), meeting around 70% of their defence training requirements.
India has trained over 1400 MNDF trainees over the past ten years. MNDF has also been participating in various military-to-military activities such as joint EEZ patrols, anti-narcotic operations, SAR (search and rescue), sea-rider program, HADR exercises, adventure camps, sailing regatta, etc. Indian Navy has also provided MNDF with air assets for air surveillance, MEDEVAC (Medical evacuation), SAR, and Helo-borne vertical insertion capability.
India’s defence cooperation also extends to the areas of Joint Exercises, Maritime Domain Awareness, gifting of hardware and infrastructure development. Key projects in the Maldives’ defence sector include the Composite Training Centre (CTC) for MNDF, the Coastal Radar System (CRS), and the construction of a new Ministry of Defence Headquarters.
During the August 2022 visit of President Solih to India, the supply of a replacement ship for the earlier provided ship-CGS Huravee – to MNDF, the supply of the second Landing Craft Assault (LCA) to MNDF & Gifting of 24 utility vehicles to MNDF was announced. India also handed over 24 utility vehicles to the Maldives in October 2022. Besides, there is the Annual Defence Cooperation Dialogue at the level of Defence Secretary (initiated in July 2016) and Annual Joint Staff Talks. MNDF continues to participate in various forums such as IONS, Goa Maritime Conclave, and Goa Symposium. There are presently three major joint exercises with Maldives that are held regularly.
MNDF regularly participates in Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief, Search & Rescue (SAR), Pollution Control, and other exercises organised by New Delhi. India has provided pollution dispersant to the MNDF Coast Guard.
New Delhi is also undertaking customised training for the MNDF Fire and Rescue Service in India. In fact, during August 1-4, 2022, the official visit of President Solih to India, an MoU for cooperation in the field of disaster management between NDMA, India, and NDMA, Maldives, was signed.
India also provided a $50 million credit line to the Maldives in 2021 for defence projects, and a pact was signed to build the Uthuru Thila Falhu harbour. New Delhi is also developing its presence in Addu in the south, including constructing a new police academy and plans to open an Indian consulate there.
It is in tune with India’s commitment to capacity building in the Maldives that Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh, during his visit in May last year, had gifted one Fast Patrol Vessel ship and a Landing Craft to the Maldives National Defence Forces.
However, the PPM, which is supposedly under the firm control of former President Yameen, whose regime in 2014-18 had allowed China to make a huge presence in the country, made “India Out” a major slogan during the electioneering in September 2023 successfully.
It argued that by intensifying military cooperation with India and bringing the Indian military personnel and platforms to the country, the Solih government compromised on the country’s sovereignty and made the Maldives “a slave of India.”
But then, as has been pointed out, it seems to be more of rhetoric than reality. The Solih regime, as a matter of fact, was implementing the agreements that Yameen had made with India as the President.
Even on the contentious issue of Uthuru Thila Falhu, the fact remains that India is helping in the building of this Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbor, for which the PPM government, then led by Abdul Gayoom, had requested in 2013 as part of enhancing the capability of the Maldivian Defence forces. The agreement to this effect was signed by Yameen himself in 2016.
India’s security cooperation is open and transparent in the sense that it is also a part of Colombo Security Conclave involving Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Mauritius. This collaboration is designed to initiate collective action on maritime security, including maritime domain awareness, legal regimes, training in search and rescue, maritime pollution response, information sharing, curbing piracy drugs arms and contraband trafficking and unregulated fishing. And this is said to be extremely beneficial for Maldives, which is critically dependent on the ocean for domestic food security and exports (particularly fish and related products).
But the Muizzu government even decided to skip this meeting that was held in December at Port Louis, Mauritius. Instead, Maldives Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef attended the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation in Kunming, Yunnan province, held on the same day, and called for “novel avenues of collaboration and cooperation with China.”
He said, “We are dedicated to fortifying the long-standing relations between China and the Maldives, built upon the foundation of mutual respect and shared goals,” he declared, claiming that both nations shared a “people-centric strategy” for “social development, peace, and prosperity.”
As if all this was not enough, Muizzu’s anti-India policies were further evident last week when Maldives chose not to renew the hydrography cooperation agreement with India, allowing it to expire on June 7, 2024. Originally signed in 2019, this agreement permitted India to conduct hydrographic surveys in the Maldives' territorial waters, encompassing mapping of underwater surfaces and studying reefs, lagoons, coastlines, and other physical features.
However, according to the Sri Lankan Guardian newspaper, Muizzu is all set to allow the docking of a so- called research vessel, believed to be for spying purposes as well at Male. Incidentally, on January 1, Sri Lanka had refused permission for the same Chinese vessel to dock at Colombo and imposed a year-long ban on all such spy ships from visiting its ports, acquiescing to India’s security concerns.
Citing unnamed sources in the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Sri Lanka Guardian reported on January 3 that the Chinese vessel, named Xiang Yang Hong 03, would be welcomed in Male. It quoted an unnamed Maldivian official to have said that Male has “no objection” to Chinese warships mooring in Maldivian waters.
The China factor had played a big role under the previous PPM regime of President Yameen. After all, it was during Yameen’s regime that China made strong inroads in Maldives. Under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China established a series of new infrastructure projects in the Maldives. He signed a China-Maldives free trade agreement and made the country a member of the Chinese BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). By 2018, Beijing had completed a major upgrade—including a new 3,400-metre runway—at the Maldives’s main international airport, as well as a new bridge linking Male to the island of Hulhumalé.
However, Chinese investments through loans had reached nearly $1.5 billion, a high figure for a nation with a GDP of less than $9 billion. That the succeeding MDP government had to work very hard to get untangled from the Chinese debt trap is a different matter. But PPP’s love for China remains unabated.
Can China really play a friendlier role in the Maldives than India? Here are some facts: In 1988, it was India that sent its paratroopers and naval ships to the Maldives to aid former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (Yameen’s half-brother), who faced a coup attempt by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries.
It was India that had supplied drinking water to Maldives during the water crisis in December 2014 (It did not have enough drinking water). India was the first country to respond directly under what was called “Operation Neer.”
It was India that supplied the Maldives with more than 100,000 Covishield vaccines in January 2021, at the peak of the pandemic. India has become the main destination for medical treatment of the people of the Maldives.
It is India which is the Maldives’ primary source of financing and support for infrastructure projects. India’s line of credit of $136.6 million went a long way toward the completion of the Male airport (China had not completed it under the BRI). This has been India’s second-largest infrastructure project, following the $500 million Greater Male Connectivity project, which connects the Maldives capital to three neighbouring highlands with a 6.74-km bridge and causeway over the sea.
Against this background, if China is still the first love of Muizzu, then it is Indian people who determine the contours of Delhi’s policy towards Male. The likes of Tendulkar and Salman Khan have shown the way.
*** The writer is a senior journalist and strategic affairs commentator; views expressed here are his own