New Dynamics in the Relations of Island Neighbours

November 2, 2023

-By Vaibhav Yadav                                                                                                                                                                 (Student at Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow)

The recent Presidential Election in the Maldives brought a significant shift in the nation’s foreign policy. Mohamed Muizzu, the newly elected President, has raised eyebrows with his pro-China stance, the “India Out” approach, and strong criticisms of the presence of Indian troops on the islands. The implications of these shifts have profound consequences for the India-Maldives relationship.

India and the Maldives have shared deep-rooted connections, encompassing ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, and commercial links for centuries. These ties have resulted in a close and multifaceted relationship. India was among the first countries to recognize Maldives after its independence in 1965, establishing diplomatic relations. The strategic importance of India in the Maldives is widely acknowledged, with India serving as a net security provider. The “India First” policy of the Maldivian government underscores the significance of this partnership.

On the other hand, China’s economic strategies, particularly the “debt-for-equity” exchange, have raised eyebrows. Former Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed has frequently voiced concerns about China’s aims to attain commercial dominance in its partner countries while entrapping them in unsustainable debt. The Sri Lankan example, where China secured a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port, stands as a case in point.

Sri Lanka, another neighboring nation, faced its set of challenges with China’s increasing involvement in infrastructure projects, primarily under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These collaborations led to financial difficulties, most notably in the case of the Hambantota Port project. In response, Sri Lanka adopted a more balanced foreign policy approach and increased engagement with India. This cooperation extended to economic, defence, and strategic sectors, focusing on development projects, security collaboration, and diplomatic engagement. This shift highlighted the significance of fostering stronger ties with India after confronting challenges linked to heavy engagement with China.

India’s foreign policy is guided by the “neighbourhood first” principle, emphasizing mutual respect and cooperation. Indian loans come with transparent terms, concessional interest rates, and favorable repayment conditions. India is cautious about not burdening recipient countries with excessive debt and underscores the importance of debt sustainability.

The evolving dynamics in the India-Maldives relationship are of great concern. President Muizzu’s tilt towards China’s attractive financial loans policy and the Belt and Road Initiative, coupled with his “India Out” stance and criticisms of Indian troops in the Maldives, have raised uncertainties about the future of this critical partnership. The Maldives’ economy is heavily dependent on Indian tourists and trade with India, with the bilateral trade exceeding $300 million. Any anti-India stance by the Maldivian government could result in travel restrictions, trade barriers, and limitations on Indian investments, potentially causing shortages and inflation of essential goods.

Travel restrictions could severely impact the Maldives, as nearly 23 percent of foreign tourists are Indians. The Maldives is a preferred destination for Indian tourists. Anti-Indian sentiments and efforts to distance India could tarnish the Maldives’ image in India, leading to fewer Indian visitors and financial losses for the Maldives. India’s investments in the Maldives differ from China’s approach, focusing on the welfare and interests of the Maldivian people rather than crony interests.

Anti-Indian sentiments in the Maldives have been a recurring theme, often driven by political opportunism. The “India Out” campaign is no exception, initiated by the opposition to criticize the government and fuel anti-India sentiments for political gains. The dominance of the Maldives’ opposition on social media, particularly in the run-up to the 2023 elections, underscores the political opportunism at play.

The dominance of Maldives’ opposition members on the social media landscape could be linked to opportunism, especially in the run-up to the 2023 elections. Unsurprisingly, even most of the co-related hashtags of “India Out” were related to the opposition’s objective of promoting nationalist sentiments, cornering the current government, displaying Yameen as a messiah against India, and mustering support for the 2023 polls. 

While the India-Maldives relationship is facing new challenges, it is essential to acknowledge the historical ties, shared interests, and economic interdependence that underpin this partnership. The strategic significance of the Maldives in ensuring India’s maritime security remains unchanged. While the election of President Muizzu might not have been India’s preferred outcome, it is crucial to engage with neighboring countries without being overly concerned about China. Strengthening traditional alliances and adopting a non-zero-sum approach is vital for shaping India’s strategic future in the Indian Ocean region.

The “India Out” campaign, while raising concerns, may not fundamentally damage India’s interests. The deep-rooted relationship between India and the Maldives has weathered changes in political leadership. India’s consistent efforts to connect with the people of the Maldives and provide assistance during times of need have cultivated a positive image in the country. Temporary restrictions on Indian forces’ access to the Maldives may occur, but they should not lead to feelings of alienation.

India should remain committed to advancing investments and assistance to the Maldives and stay true to its “neighborhood first” policy. The main argument of the new Maldivian government seems centered on safeguarding the sovereignty of the Maldives and preventing foreign influence and military personnel from being stationed in the country rather than ending the relationship with India.

Interestingly, Defence Cooperation between India and the Maldives has been on the rise. When India’s Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Radhakrishnan Hari Kumar, visited the Maldives in April 2022, Solih noted that “defense cooperation is an integral aspect of the Maldives-India relationship” and that “military cooperation between the two countries had increased over the past three years.”

President Muizzu’s government emphasizes the importance of maintaining sovereignty by not allowing foreign military personnel, including Indian troops, to be stationed in the country. This focus on sovereignty over foreign military presence represents a challenge in balancing security and national sovereignty. However, the P.P.M.’s vice president, Mohamed Shareef ‘Mundhu,’ the former Maldivian ambassador to Sri Lanka and Japan, doesn’t think that India should be worried that the new government would be hostile to New Delhi.“All the fear-mongering about China is unwarranted,” said Shareef, a former P.P.M. secretary general.

In conclusion, the India-Maldives relationship is at a crossroads, and navigating these uncharted waters will require careful diplomacy and strategic thinking. The historical ties and shared interests provide a strong foundation for the partnership to endure and evolve. While the shifting dynamics are cause for concern, they should also be seen as an opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen the bonds between these neighboring nations. Moreover, concerns of geopolitical analysts regarding the new twist in the relations between the two island neighbors might not be actual, as no nation would dare to affect its foreign affairs for the sake of domestic political ideology.