The inaugural foreign policy move by the new leadership in the Maldives, under President Mohamed Muizzu, urges New Delhi to “withdraw Indian military personnel.” This move not only carries significant implications for India but also resonates ominously for its Quad partners – the United States, Australia, and Japan.
The debate revolves around whether this decision is grounded in perception or reality. While New Delhi is undeniably attentive to the developments in the Maldives, a small archipelagic nation merely 70 nautical miles from India’s Minicoy Island, the notion that India has stationed its troops there appears dubious.
You can also read: MALDIVES’ NO TO FOREIGN MILITARY PRESENCE
Furthermore, if Male’s decision aligns with Muizzu’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)’s known pro-China stance, the decision extends beyond bilateral considerations. It encompasses a broader geopolitical agenda of the new regime, undoubtedly pleasing Beijing.
Humanitarian Mission Or Military Presence?
India’s military presence in the Maldives involves 77 personnel dedicated to operating and maintaining aircraft donated by India. Contrary to misconceptions, they focus on humanitarian missions, conducting over 977 such operations since 2019, primarily transporting patients and engaging in search and rescue efforts. The “Action Plan for Defence” signed in 2016 outlined India’s role in training the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), fulfilling 70% of their defense training needs.
Over a decade, India has trained over 1400 MNDF personnel, involving joint patrols, anti-narcotic operations, and more. India’s contributions extend to air assets, maritime domain awareness, hardware gifting, and infrastructure projects like the Composite Training Centre (CTC) and Coastal Radar System (CRS). Amidst calls for reassessment by Maldivian authorities, the enduring defense cooperation highlights India’s substantial role in enhancing the Maldives’ military capabilities and fostering regional security.
Depths Of India-maldives Defense Collaboration
During President Solih’s visit to India in August 2022, announcements were made regarding the supply of a replacement ship for the CGS Huravee and the provision of the second Landing Craft Assault (LCA) to the MNDF. Additionally, 24 utility vehicles were gifted to the MNDF, demonstrating India’s commitment to enhancing the Maldives’ defense capabilities.
Annual Defense Cooperation Dialogues at the level of Defense Secretary, initiated in July 2016, and Annual Joint Staff Talks are integral components of this strategic partnership. MNDF actively engages in various forums such as IONS, Goa Maritime Conclave, and Goa Symposium. Presently, three major joint exercises with the Maldives are conducted regularly.
MNDF’s consistent participation in Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief, Search & Rescue (SAR), Pollution Control, and other exercises organized by New Delhi highlights the collaborative nature of this defense partnership. India has even provided pollution dispersants to the MNDF Coast Guard.
New Delhi is also investing in customized training for the MNDF Fire and Rescue Service. Notably, during President Solih’s official visit to India from August 1-4, 2022, an MoU for cooperation in the field of disaster management between NDMA, India, and NDMA, Maldives, was signed, further solidifying the commitment to mutual collaboration in critical areas.
India extended a $50 million credit line to the Maldives in 2021 for defense projects, exemplified by the agreement to construct the Uthuru Thila Falhu harbor. Concurrently, India is fortifying its presence in the southern region of Addu, undertaking initiatives such as establishing a new police academy and contemplating the inauguration of an Indian consulate.
Ppm’s “india Out” Slogan: Political Rhetoric Or Substantive Concerns?
Aligned with India’s commitment to bolstering capacities in the Maldives, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, during his visit in May of this year, generously gifted a Fast Patrol Vessel ship and a Landing Craft to the Maldives National Defence Forces.
Nevertheless, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), purportedly under the influence of former President Yameen, who had allowed China a substantial presence in the country during his 2014-18 regime at the expense of India, prominently featured the slogan “India Out” during the successful election campaign in September. The PPM asserted that the Solih government’s intensification of military cooperation with India compromised the country’s sovereignty, branding the Maldives as “a slave of India.”
However, this rhetoric appears more theatrical than substantive. The Solih administration was, in reality, implementing agreements initiated by Yameen during his presidency. Even on the contentious matter of Uthuru Thila Falhu, India is contributing to the construction of the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbor, a request made by the PPM government under Abdul Gayam’s leadership in 2013 to enhance the capabilities of the Maldivian Defence forces. Yameen himself signed the agreement to this effect in 2016.
India’s security cooperation is characterized by openness and transparency, evident in its involvement in trilateral maritime security cooperation with Sri Lanka. This collaboration aims to facilitate collective action on maritime security, encompassing maritime domain awareness, legal regimes, search and rescue training, maritime pollution response, information sharing, and the curbing of piracy, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and unregulated fishing.
Major Powers In Maldives: Us, Australia, And Japan’s Growing Influence
The China factor plays a crucial role here. It was during Yameen’s regime that China significantly expanded its presence in Maldives under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initiating a series of new infrastructure projects.
Chinese investments through loans had surged to nearly $1.5 billion during that period, a substantial amount for a nation with a GDP of less than $9 billion. Although the subsequent MDP government under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had to work diligently to extricate itself from the Chinese debt trap, Yameen’s affinity for China persists.
Under President Solih, the MDP government broadened the country’s diplomatic horizons, fostering relations with major countries like Japan, Australia, and the United States.
In September 2020, Washington inked a new defense framework agreement with Male. The following month, in one of the last major Asia policy decisions of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the establishment of America’s first embassy in the Maldives. Washington has intensified maritime cooperation with Male, including providing nearly $11 million in assistance since 2018.
In September of this year, coinciding with the Presidential elections in Maldives, the US inaugurated an embassy in Male, appointing career diplomat Hugo Hue-Ho Yon as its first resident US ambassador.
Similarly, Australia officially inaugurated its embassy in Maldives in May this year. Japan, too, increased its focus on Maldives, with the foreign ministers of both countries meeting twice in each other’s capital this year alone.
Muizzu’s Review Aligns With Beijing’s Goals
According to statements from officials in the US, Japan, and Australia, they share a common outlook on Maldives. Maldives is perceived in the context of their coordinated Indo-Pacific policy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” based on the rule of law, democratic values, maritime safety, and security. Their collective aim is to prevent the region from being dominated by “a single hegemon or coalition of powers.”
In fact, a US Congressional report argues that, to counter the growing Chinese influence in the Maldives, like-minded Quad and “democratic” partners must collaborate with India to further the cause of democracies in the region and enhance security collaborations among themselves.
Unsurprisingly, China expressed dissatisfaction with these developments during the MDP government in the Maldives. Chinese experts referred to “geopolitical opportunism in the Maldives” by the US, viewing the opening of the US embassy as part of the American strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
China also believes that “US moves in the Maldives have the Indian backing in the wake of changing regional dynamics. In recent years, India, which has viewed the Maldives as its backyard, sees China’s footprint in South Asia and the Indian Ocean as a challenge to its dominance in the region. India wants to bring the US into the region to check China’s rise.”
Against this backdrop, China has every reason to rejoice in the return to power of its favored PPM in the Maldives. Therefore, President Muizzu’s efforts to undo or review the policies and decisions of the Solih regime will likely receive Beijing’s blessings, if not encouragement.