Maldives’ Maladies

In a surprising volte-face, President Mohamed Muizzu reached out to India in a bid to thaw ties. Is Maldives becoming a “swing state” buffeted by India-China’s strategic maelstrom in the Indian Ocean?

By Col R Hariharan

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu, who got elected flaunting his “India out” credentials, surprised everyone last week by saying India will continue to remain his country’s closest ally. 

In his first-ever interview to a local media outlet, Muizzu emphasised that he had “not taken any action nor made any statements” that may strain the relationship between the two countries. He fervently hoped that India would accommodate debt relief measures for the loans successive governments in Maldives had taken from India. “The conditions we have inherited are such that there are very large loans taken from India. Hence, we are holding discussions to explore leniencies in the repayment structure of these loans. Instead of halting any ongoing projects, proceed with them at speed. So, I see no reason for any adverse effects [on Maldives-India relations],” he said.

Obviously he was referring to the public debt of 119 billion Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR), equal to US $630.7 million, he inherited on assuming office. Maldives had taken US$ 1.4 million loan from India’s Exim Bank. Together with this, Maldives owed India 6.2 billion MVR equal to US$ 401 million.

So has the president had a change of heart in mending his fractured relationship with India? Not at all if we go by his record since assuming office. Ever since he was elected, every action of his has been to downgrade the umbilical relations existing between India and Maldives, nurtured by his predecessor President Solih. As president, the first thing Muizzu did was to put a hold on “execution of bilateral conventions and agreements” with India. He gave India a deadline of March 15 to withdraw its “foreign troops” who were working under the orders of the Maldives Defence Force (MDF) to man surveillance aircraft and helicopters for casualty evacuation. India complied with it, with its civilians replacing the “foreign troops”. The president had demanded that by May 10, all Indian personnel manning the three Indian aviation platforms should leave the country.

Muizzu preferred China, rather than India which has been Maldives’ biggest development and defence partner, to make his first state visit in January. Describing China as Maldives’ “closest development partner”, he committed to implement the stalled Free Trade Agreement with it. He agreed to elevate Maldives-China ties to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” (CSCP), a status on par with China’s ties with ASEAN countries.

The visiting president went on to sign 20 MoUs to trigger cooperation between the two governments covering a wide range of areas.

Weeks after the president’s return from China, the two countries formally signed a military pact. Maldives Minister of Defence Ghassan Maumoon and Major General Zhang Baoqun, Deputy Director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of PRC, exchanged the documents. Though details of the pact are not known, according to Maldivian media, under the pact, China will provide free military assistance to Maldives. A parallel agreement was also signed concerning the visit of Xiang Yang Hong 3, a Chinese research vessel, which was seen in Maldivian waters. This is likely to help Chinese maritime research vessels freely enter Arabian Sea waters. This contrasts with Maldives holding in abeyance its agreement with India on hydrographic survey. These actions send a clear signal that China, rather than India, will be the pivot of Maldives strategic security.

On March 15, Muizzu inaugurated the MNDF Air Corps, the newly formed air arm, at Maafaru International Airport in the Noonu Atoll. The Air Corps is armed with Bayratkar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) procured from Turkey at an estimated cost of $37 million. Who provided the credit for the UAV procurement to cash-strapped Maldives is a question yet to be answered. The UAV will be used to carry out surveillance of Maldives waters, a job done so far by aircraft gifted by India.

Speaking on the occasion, Muizzu said Maldives was capable of monitoring 9,00,000 sq km of its jurisdiction. As an independent and sovereign nation, surveillance of the country’s jurisdiction should not concern any external parties. Apparently hinting at India, he explained that this would not impede Maldives’ close relations with all countries. He added that the government would double the capacity of the Coast Guard, expand the Air Corps fleet and enhance land-based vehicles and platforms. He further affirmed the importance of Maldives navigating its course towards self-reliance and remaining an independent and sovereign nation in “every aspect”.

Apparently, China’s hand-holding is giving confidence to the Maldivian president to go ahead with the decoupling of close relations with India and overhauling the national security apparatus. Maldives is not under any strategic compulsion from India to give up his intricately crafted strategy to keep it at bay.

His compulsions now are more internal and political. Politically, Muizzu’s popularity will be tested when the Maldivian parliamentary elections take place on April 21, 2024. Muizzu will have to make good on three focus areas he had referred to in his inaugural address last year. These are: overcoming the country’s highest ever public debt of 119 billion Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR) equal to US$630.7 million; complete the mega project of expanding Velana international airport as part of “emergency treatment” for the economy to generate revenue, and lastly, overcoming the housing shortage that is causing societal complexities.

India can help by deferring the debt servicing of over $400 million in loans. As regards housing, India’s state-owned National Buildings Construction Co is involved in developing 4,000 social housing units as per the loan agreement signed in 2021 with Exim Bank’s buyers’ credit of about $228 million. This needs to be speeded up. Apparently, Muizzu is toning down his rhetoric as he needs India to help him politically in the parliamentary election.

India has understood from Muizzu’s speeches that he wants to be an active partner in Indian Ocean security. He wants Maldives to be treated on par with big powers like India and China and contribute to the discussions and discourses here. Ever since he came to power, India has asked Male to “collaborate closely to address shared challenges confronting our region”. At one of the briefings, a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson explained: “The focus of our partnership with Maldives has always been on capacity building and working together to address our shared challenges and priorities…including security challenges and priorities.”

So, India has gone ahead strengthening its strategic presence around Maldives. It inaugurated a new naval air base INS Jatayu on Minicoy Island in Lakshadweep Islands. This is a second base in the island chain nearest to Maldives and it will help India keep a close surveillance in the region. India has recently strengthened security relations with Mauritius by opening an airstrip and a jetty on Aglega, a set of two islands on western Indian Ocean. They are located 1,100 km from Port Louis (Mauritius) and 2,500 km south west of Male. Though it is not a military base, it will enable India to operate the Navy’s P81 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, adding military muscle in this part of the Indian Ocean. The sea around is thick with Indian naval warships keeping vigil against piracy and Houthi attacks on the Red Sea. 

Muizzu is hoping for India to help him out politically as he heads for a parliamentary election. India is tied down with its own election priorities and may not be in a hurry to act. India is probably waiting before acting, but be ready to act if it is necessary. In other words, “keep the powder dry” as far as Maldives is concerned. 

—The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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