The President-elect of Maldives is pro-China but antagonising India will come with a price

Incoming president Muizzu is expected to steer Male towards China-centric trade relations, but that cannot come at the cost of burning bridges with its historical ally, New Delhi.
Mohamed Muizzu speaks during an election campaign rally in Thinadhoo on September 26, 2023, ahead of the second round of the Maldives' presidential election. (Photo | AFP)
Mohamed Muizzu speaks during an election campaign rally in Thinadhoo on September 26, 2023, ahead of the second round of the Maldives' presidential election. (Photo | AFP)

Maldives President-elect Mohamed Muizzu was tasked to take on incumbent leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in a battle for the archipelago's highest office with far-reaching implications for the Indian Ocean region. Heading into the elections as an underdog, Muizzu pulled off a surprise victory over Solih, securing over 54 per cent of the votes in the Presidential run-off on September 30. 

But Muizzu's rise to the top job was circumstantial.

He was a stand-in replacement for the right-wing coalition of the People's National Congress (PNC), which he belongs to, and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) after PPM leader and former President Abdulla Yameen was barred from contesting the Presidential elections on account of serving a prison term for bribery and money laundering during his presidency from 2013 to 2018.

Prior to his ascent, 45-year-old Muizzu — a Britain-educated engineer and a Yameen loyalist — had served as Maldives' Housing Minister till 2018 and later became Male's Mayor in 2021.

India's influence in the region has always been a point of contention among a section of Maldivian political leaders. Muizzu, who is among the anti-India sceptics, sustained his campaign on a platform aiming to reduce New Delhi's political and economic might in Maldives.

During a meeting with Chinese Communist Party officials last year, Muizzu had said that his party's return to office would "script a further chapter of strong ties between our two countries" — an outcome that poses a strategic threat to India.

Muizzu, like Yameen, is expected to steer the Maldives towards a China-centric foreign policy, thereby marking a significant shift from the position taken by outgoing President Solih who had re-established the island nation's long-term relationship with India.

Prior to Yameen, Maldivian leaders have historically pursued an 'India First' approach with New Delhi — the most influential power in the region for decades — continuing to provide significant aid for the country and bolstering strategic, economic and military ties.

However, Yameen's presidency witnessed a stark shift away from India and into China's sphere of influence which caused ties between Male and New Delhi to turn bitter as Beijing's influence grew on the island nation. In 2014, the Yameen administration joined China's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and later pushed for a free trade agreement (FTA) with Beijing in 2017.  

Joining the BRI was necessitated by the Maldives graduating from the United Nations' Least Developed Countries status, which implied that international aid would soon dry up and increase the island nation's dependence on bilateral investments to develop its infrastructure.

Another factor behind Yameen's anti-India posturing was Beijing turning a blind eye towards his right-wing government's human rights violations and hardline policies. Funding from New Delhi and the West, however, came with 'strings attached'. When Yameen invoked Emergency powers in 2018, New Delhi expressed concern over the matter while China came to his defence, warning India not to 'interfere' in Maldives’ domestic politics.

Yameen's worry over the rapport the rival and liberal-leaning Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) shared with India only furthered the pro-China policy. But when MDP's Ibrahim Solih succeeded Yameen in 2018, the former reverted to the long-standing 'India First' stance despite growing concerns about the influence India wielded in the archipelago.

During his presidency, Solih also withheld the ratification of Yameen's FTA with China, an agreement that incoming President Muizzu is likely to follow through with as he believes that Maldivian trade relations had become heavily India-centric under the MDP regime.

A 'love' triangle

India was among the first nations to recognise the Maldives' Independence from the British in 1965 and established its embassy in Male in 1972. It also backed the island nation when it became a a fully functional democracy in 2008, and in 1988, India helped foil a coup attempt against the country’s long-time authoritarian leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

From defence to tourism, India is among the Maldives' largest trading partners and has increased its presence in the region over the years as part of its 'Neighbourhood First' policy. India has spent billions to help improve public infrastructure and housing in the archipelago.

Both nations are also among the founding members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) which aim to liberalise trade and provide equitable benefits among its signatories. 

New Delhi is also among the largest investors in the Greater Male Project — a 6.7-kilometre sea-link bridge aiming to connect the capital city with three adjacent highlands — having sanctioned a USD 100 million grant and USD 400 million line of credit in August 2022.

However, India isn't alone in this regard.

China, which established its diplomatic ties with Male in 1972, has significantly increased its investment in the island nation's infrastructure ever since Yameen's presidency, with Beijing-backed projects being most visible in Male and the adjoining island of Hulhumale, the nation's commercial and administrative centres.

This includes the construction of sea-link bridges, a building for the Maldives' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a national museum and housing projects, among others. Also significant is China's USD 126 million investment for the construction of the 2.1-kilometre Sinamale bridge that connects Male with the Velana International Airport situated on another island.

Both India and China have provided Maldives with millions of dollars via loans and grants for development projects, but Beijing's steep loans have put the Maldives in a tight spot. Maldives now owes China anywhere between USD 1.5 billion and USD 3.5 billion, with its debt standing at 31 per cent of its Gross National Income in 2022.

In 2019, former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed publicly speculated that China is being allowed to buy whole islands and offer loans that the government could not afford to pay back. 

Nasheed stated that government-to-government loans stood at USD 1.5 billion but upon factoring in private loans and sovereign guarantees, he said that the Maldives owed China around USD 3.5 billion and would have to pay back USD 700 million in 2022.

The incoming Muizzu regime will have to look at prioritising developmental projects and initiating economic reforms, failing which, the Maldives will face the repercussions of falling into China's 'debt trap'.

If the Maldives defaults on its payments, it will face a similar fate as Sri Lanka and other defaulting nations under the BRI. Such an outcome does not bode well for India which is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China and has shored up alliances to curb Beijing's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

'India Out' and its implications

Defence has been a substantial area of investment for India in the Maldives. Both nations engage in joint military drills and share expertise in areas such as counterterrorism, disaster management, cyber security, and maritime security. 

The deployment of Indian troops in the Maldives became a key factor in this year's presidential poll campaign with Muizzu and the PPM-PNC alliance promising to remove the Indian military contingent from the island nation.

India has been helping to develop Maldives' security infrastructure including bringing the archipelago into India's security grid for surveillance. It has also gifted patrol equipment such as the Trinkat-class patrol vessels and Fast Attack Craft to Maldives National Defence Force's (MNDF) Coast Guard.

In 2022, India handed over a coastal radar system aimed at enhancing Male's regional security. As many as 10 radar stations were sent to Maldives on an Indian grant of USD 15.8 million and were networked with the Indian coastal radar system. These stations are operated by the Maldives’ Coast Guard and are interlinked with India's Coastal Command, which will get a seamless radar picture of the region.

Similarly, the construction of an Indian naval facility on the island of Uthuru Thila Falhu began during Defence Minister Rajnath Singh's visit to the Maldives earlier this year. The naval base was part of an agreement signed between both nations in 2021, in which India extended a USD 50 million line of credit for defence projects. Under this agreement, India would develop and manage a harbour and dock for a period of 30 years. However, this led to more discontent among political circles as it was seen as a move affecting the island nation's sovereignty.

India had based two helicopters in 2010 and 2013 to enhance its surveillance capabilities, and in 2020, it gifted the Maldives a Dornier aircraft that would be controlled by the MNDF while New Delhi covered its running costs. The air support was to help the Maldives respond swiftly to threats and carry out search and rescue missions and medical evacuations.

However, the deployment of 75 Indian military personnel in the country to operate and maintain the Indian aircraft caused an uproar in the Maldives, with the Yameen-led Opposition launching an "India Out" campaign urging the withdrawal of Indian forces, terming it a 'national security issue'. During his final year in office, Yameen had gone as far as accusing India's military technicians of espionage.

With the PPM-PNC in power, Muizzu is likely to make good his promise by demanding India to withdraw its military personnel — a move that will be welcomed by his party's nationalist voter base. It will however be at the cost of kick-starting another period of frosty ties with the country's long-standing ally. 

Similarly, moves like ratifying the FTA with China, and initiating defence cooperation with its People's Liberation Army (PLA), as well as attempts to hand over India's developmental projects to Beijing will not sit well with New Delhi.

Any politically motivated decision taken by the Muizzu regime will have unpleasant repercussions.

For Maldives, the carrot in the form of increased investments from Beijing will be a mouthwatering prospect that it can't ignore. But, antagonising India while drifting towards China-centric policies is a mistake that the Maldives can't afford to make.

But when Beijing's stick eventually arrives, having a not-so-disgruntled ally -- India -- by Maldives' side may end up becoming a lifeboat. Cue in 'Operation Cactus'.

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