Maldives President Muizzu gets down to work, ups ante on India

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New administration exposes details of New Delhi’s military presence

Mohamed Muizzu, the new president of the Maldives, speaks during his inauguration ceremony in Male on Nov. 17.   © Reuters

BANGKOK — He may hail from South Asia’s smallest country, but that has not deterred the Maldives’ new President Mohamed Muizzu from demanding a reset in diplomatic ties with regional giant India.

In his sights is an Indian military presence on the strategically located archipelago, which is also coveted by another Asian powerhouse, China.

Muizzu put New Delhi on notice that he would seek a diplomatic route to expel 77 Indian military personnel, during an address to the nation on Nov. 17, when the 45-year-old was sworn in as the Maldives’ eighth president. “I will ensure that this country has no foreign military presence on its soil,” he said in his speech, delivered in the national language Dhivehi.

As his five-year administration began work this week, Muizzu’s political appointees used their new powers to lay bare details about the Indian military contingent, which had been kept under wraps by the previous administration of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a staunch ally of India.

The presence includes two teams of 24 and 26 Indian security personnel assigned to a pair of helicopters, along with 25 personnel assigned to a Dornier aircraft — all of whom reportedly enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

The helicopters and the plane were given to Male by New Delhi. Many Maldivians viewed this with the same suspicion as they did an Indian offer to develop a coast guard harbor for Maldivian forces, along with the construction of a national college of policing. The terms for such Indian assistance are reportedly included in over 100 agreements — also undisclosed — that New Delhi signed with the Solih administration.

Muizzu’s government now aims to scrutinize them.

During Solih’s presidency, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had courted the Maldives as a key maritime neighbor under New Delhi’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative and “Neighborhood First Policy.” But the anti-India tone of Muizzu’s campaign, leading up to his runoff victory on Sept. 30, made it clear that the bilateral relationship would be tested.

Voters in the capital affirmed to Nikkei Asia during interviews on polling day that Muizzu was in step with increasing public concern over India’s expanding presence through security and financial assistance, which they feared was eroding the country’s sovereignty.

Seasoned observers of Indian Ocean geopolitics say the tiny island state, which straddles busy Indian Ocean shipping lanes, is determined to reshape its ties with its much larger neighbor.

“It won’t happen overnight, but President Muizzu’s policy is ultimately about ending a security cooperation program as it currently stands,” said Nilanthi Samaranayake, an Indian Ocean expert at the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Institute of Peace.

In focus, she added, would also be the military assets that New Delhi donated. “It will be worth watching whether any of the aircraft returns to India or whether there is a process to hand over full operational and training responsibilities to the Maldivian National Defence Force,” noted the author of a forthcoming book on the smaller South Asian countries.

Motorbikes in Male on Nov 21. Muizzu’s questioning of India’s military presence in the Maldives struck a chord with many voters. (Photo by Hiroki Endo)

Muizzu’s pushback against Indian influence over his country of 1,200 atolls and islands — better known globally for high-end tourism — is inviting comparisons to the policy his predecessor Solih adopted soon after his 2018 triumph.

In Solih’s case, the goal was to reduce China’s dominance, after his own predecessor Abdulla Yameen had taken a strong pro-Beijing tilt.

Muizzu served as a minister in the Yameen government and was viewed as a Yameen proxy during his 2023 run for the presidency.

Yameen, who was barred from contesting because of an 11-year prison term for accepting bribes and money laundering during his term, never hid his anti-Indian and pro-China sentiments after his 2018 electoral defeat. He spearheaded an “India Out” protest campaign in recent years that struck a chord with his supporters, resulting in protests by the Indian Embassy in Male.

Muizzu’s association with Yameen has raised questions as to whether the new president can chart his own course, or will remain beholden to the former leader. Soon after the presidential election results, Yameen was transferred from jail to his home to serve his sentence under house arrest. Political insiders and diplomatic sources in Male say that Yameen has already announced to his loyalists that he will pressure Muizzu to keep the heat on India.

But diplomatic sources also told Nikkei Asia that they expect Muizzu’s position toward India to be more nuanced — beyond the thorny issue of the Indian military personnel.

“Soon after his election, [Muizzu] made it clear that he is not against India or pro-China and that he was very much pro-Maldives,” said a senior envoy who met Muizzu after his victory. “He came across as a good listener and carefully chose his words.”

Experts on Maldivian foreign policy concur, expecting Muizzu to approach his country’s ties with India along pragmatic lines during his first term.

“A change in government in the Maldives will not change the geopolitical realities faced by the Maldives,” Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldivian foreign minister, told Nikkei Asia. “Maldives will remain within India’s sphere of influence, and India will be head and shoulders above its competitors in soft power influence over Maldives.”

He said that even without an Indian military presence in the Maldives, security cooperation between Male and New Delhi will continue the way it has for decades. “If done tactfully, both India and the Maldives should be able to handle this matter smoothly and seamlessly.”

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