Muizzu’s Maldivian Maritime Mess: India on a Strategic Tightrope

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu made multiple geostrategic errors when he ordered the 80 Indian troops who had been stationed to leave the island nation by March 18, 2024. Muizzu came to power on November 2023 with the election campaign of “India Out” as he called India’s huge influence is a threat to the sovereignty of the island nation. He pledged to “withdraw foreign troops from Maldives, recover the lost part of Maldives seas and cancel any agreement made by the state that could undermine Maldives sovereignty.” But the seed of this “India Out” campaign had already been sown, way earlier. As a “pro-China president”, President Muizzu believed that India’s presence in the Maldives could jeopardize the country’s sovereignty and could compromise its internal and external affairs.  

The seed of the Ongoing Diplomatic Tussle 

In February 2018, amid political unrest in the Maldives, President Muizzu made a request for Indian troops to withdraw from the islands. Then-president Abdulla Yameen proclaimed a state of emergency and detained a number of opposition figures, including two judges of the Supreme Court. By issuing statements urging the Maldives to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling to release political prisoners and restore the rule of law, the Maldivian government accused India of meddling in its domestic affairs. 

China was seen as a competitor to India’s influence in the Indian Ocean region, and President Yameen’s administration sought stronger ties with China in response to internal opposition and pressure from India’s position. The demand for the withdrawal of Indian troops was interpreted as a component of this larger geopolitical game play. It is important to remember that the request was not granted, and after President Yameen was defeated in the presidential election later in 2018, tensions between the Maldives and India decreased. With a more balanced approach to foreign policy, the new administration of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih aimed to preserve good relations with China and India while preserving its sovereignty and national interests. 

President Muizzu put allegation on Mohamed Solih that he allowed India unchecked in the island nation and promised to get rid of Indian presence if he comes to power to restore the sovereignty to its nation. Mohamed Solih failed to convince the populace of Maldives that the mere presence of Indian troops was to build a dockyard under an agreement and this will not going to violate the integrity and sovereignty of the nation.  

Analysing the Five Geostrategic Errors:

First error was India is being forced by Maldives to leave its strategically important maritime zone, which would create a security void in both the Indian Ocean and the maritime nation. As a responsible neighbour, India never intruded on the sovereignty of the island nation, instead treated the island nation as a vital maritime neighbour within the Indian Ocean security framework. In addition to preparing to completely surrender to China, the Maldives’ request for Indian troops to leave the country’s maritime territory would help China fortify its Maritime Silk Road initiative, a vital part of the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive development plan that seeks to establish sea lanes of communication between China and the rest of the world. The strong presence of Indian navy played a role of deterrent to the Chinese naval force. 

The second mistake was to implicitly invite China to fill the security void by seeking infrastructure, financial support, and military might, thereby opening the door for China to have total control over the Maldives’ vital maritime area. As a result, China would be able to seize complete control over the strategic autonomy of the Maldives, swiftly “enslaving” the island nation and converting it into a “dependent state.” China views the Indian Ocean as a new undisputed waters space that it could indirectly control by influencing the coastal nations of the Indian Ocean, given that China is involved in maritime disputes with every country that borders the South China Sea. China continues to establish itself through infrastructure, financial support, and large loans given in the name of development, as it has done in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. China is strategically using the infrastructure cum loan card to achieve its goals in the Indian Ocean region on the geopolitical and geostrategic fronts.  

The third was stripping the Maldives’ economy of the consistent influx of Indian visitors. The Maldives’ economy is mostly dependent on tourism, so ignoring India in favour of China would be detrimental to the financial situation of the nation. It’s in a serious debt crisis right now. Prior to January 2024, India was the country with the highest number of tourists visiting the island nation, bringing in the necessary revenue to support the nation’s economy. The Maldives’ ruling government ministers made disparaging remarks to Prime Minister Modi, and online trolls wrote hurtful comments about the Lakshadweep islands. These actions sparked a strong backlash from the Indian media, and the general public began to trend the Maldives’ ban on social media. This error resulted in huge lose to the already crippling economy of Maldives. 

The fourth error could push the island nation further into China’s debt trap, with 37% of the Maldives’ exposure coming from China, if India adopts a strong stance against the Maldives and begins to withhold financial assistance that the island nation uses to develop its fragile economy. The Maldives’ biggest external creditor is China. According to IMF data, the island nations’ outstanding debt is a staggering USD 1.3 billion US, or roughly 20% of the country’s total public debt. It’s noteworthy that the other recipients of Chinese loans like Pakistan and Sri Lanka experienced a serious financial crisis. The Maldives is in great danger of experiencing “debt distress,” the IMF has warned as it approaches China. As a result, even China consented to restructure the loan payment amount, greatly assisting the Maldives in making loan payments.

The fifth error made by President Muizzu was to invite Turkish drones to monitor the Maldives Islands’ exclusive economic zone, a patrolling task that had previously been handled by India. Taking advantage of the geopolitical unrest and asserting the necessity to protect the sovereignty of the sea lanes of communication and free trade, even the US seeks to strengthen its position in the Maldives. Muizzu’s action could make the Indian Ocean the new “South China Sea” by involving several players in the area, even though it is too advanced to claim. The diplomatic dispute could have been resolved diplomatically, discreetly, and without drawing attention to itself, but Muizzu’s exaggeration of the circumstances only made matters worse. China, which has been waiting for an opportunity to interfere in the Indian Ocean, was given on the platter by President Muizzu.

India on a Strategic Tightrope

India is treading on the situation diplomatically and skilfully. India is currently balancing on a razor’s edge as it realizes it may permanently lose the Maldives to China in its geostrategic orbit around the Indian Ocean. Maldives, despite its seemingly insignificant geographic size, is strategically located; situated on the vital sea lanes of communication, in the middle of the Indian Ocean and a crucial nation in the Indian Ocean when it comes to the maritime geopolitics of Indian Ocean. Thus India is showing no sign of leaving the island nation rather diplomatically trying to resolve the issue by mutually workable situation and assuring Maldives that its troops will leave the Island nation fully by 10 May 2024 but at the same time would be replaced the troops with “competent Indian technical personal.”

Maldives adjusting posture

The Maldives’ current government appears to be completely rewriting its foreign policy. President Muizzu defied convention by travelling to Turkey rather to India for his first overseas trip as president. He addressed India specifically when he said, “We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us,” at a press conference after returning from a trip to China. He continued, by referring the ongoing tussle, “These are things that can be achieved by talking nicely and explaining in a way that everyone could believe that our country is an independent and democratic country.” In the meantime, in an effort to restore bilateral relations, President Muizzu has been urged by Gasim Ibrahim, the leader of the Jumhoori Party, to apologize to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the people of India. 

However, the current administration is not indicating that it will change its stance; instead, it is turning its back on India and facing China and the Middle East. He continued by praising China for its Belt and Road Initiative and wooing Chinese travellers in an effort to make up for the decline in Indian visitors to the island country.  

How long the Maldives will remain dependent on China and how long China will maintain the Maldives’ integrity and sovereignty as an independent country are questions that only time will answer. There’s no doubt that the Maldives’ action will alter the dynamics of the Indian Ocean and turn its waters into a theatre for geopolitical drama.

[Photo by the President’s Office, Maldives, via Wikimedia Commons]

T. Velmurugan is a Lecturer in Geography at Directorate of Education, Government of NCT of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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