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Maldives Presidential Elections: Pro-China Candidate Wins; Worries for India?

Interestingly, Political regime changes within a country can now significantly impact and shape various geopolitical aspects. A recent example of this was observed during the Maldivian Presidential Election, which generated substantial interest and discussion among two major Asian powers: China and India. This event emphasised how even in a relatively smaller nation, alterations in political leadership can resonate globally, influencing the strategies and interests of significant international players.


Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, had its Presidential election last month. During the first round on September 9, no candidate secured over 50 per cent of the votes, leading to a runoff election on September 30 between Ibrahim Solih of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) and Dr Mohamed Muizzu, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-People’s National Congress (PNC) coalition candidate. Ultimately, the opposition leader Muizzu emerged victorious in the runoff election.


The Maldives' opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu triumphed in the presidential election with two broad campaign themes: firstly, the assertion that the incumbent President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, did not uphold promises of an accountable government, and secondly, the concern over Solih's favourable stance towards India, seen as compromising the nation's sovereignty, according to media reports.


The election was framed as a competition between candidates with two differing foreign policy orientations. On one side was Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, perceived as leaning towards India (Pro-India), which drew criticism from the opposition for potentially jeopardising the Maldives' sovereignty. On the other hand, Dr. Muizzu, the Pro-China candidate who previously served in a ministerial role and participated in several agreements with China, notably a 200 million dollar deal was signed during his tenure, focusing on connecting the capital to the main airport. and he also held meetings with members of the Chinese Communist Party as per Mint.

Muizzu's ‘India Out’ campaign


The President-elect of the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, appears resolute in honouring one of his key campaign pledges: a strong position on advocating for the withdrawal of Indian soldiers from the archipelago, a stance he articulated as "India Out." “The people have decided and don’t want Indian troops to stay in the Maldives. Therefore, foreign soldiers cannot be here against our sentiments, against our will,’’ the President-elect Dr. Muizzu said.


The presence of approximately 75 Indian soldiers in the Maldives has been a subject of discussion and curiosity and a lot of criticism within the nation. These troops primarily manage aircraft, overseeing operations that include two helicopters and one Dornier aircraft, provided as a gift by India to the Maldives. Furthermore, the Indian troops are actively engaged in the construction of a naval harbour, a project that involves training for Maldivian troops.


Supporters of the 'India Out' campaign have consistently voiced a concern highlighting the perceived lack of transparency in agreements signed between the Solih government and India. They point out that these bilateral agreements have not been openly shared or discussed in the Maldivian Parliament, with the government citing national security as the reason. Muizzu accused President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of acting in favour of India’s interests. 


In February 2021, the opposition in the Maldives strongly objected to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) or preliminary agreement concerning maritime security. The MoU was signed by India's External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, and the Maldives' Defence Minister, outlining plans for the construction of a Coast Guard harbour base at the Uthuru Thila Falhu atoll. The commencement of construction took place during Defence Minister Rajnath Singh's visit in May of the same year, becoming a central point of contention for the PPM's "India Out '' protests.


The opposition has labelled the Indian military's presence as a "crime of this government," expressing fear that it could lead the Maldives to become "a slave of India," ultimately resulting in a loss of independence and sovereignty.

India-Maldives relations


During Solih's tenure, India made significant investments in the Maldives as part of its Neighbourhood First policy and Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) project. India, being the most influential regional power, has consistently asserted its dominance, especially through the Neighborhood First policy championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This policy emphasises peaceful relations and collaborative development with neighbouring countries, encompassing various domains like economics, connectivity, technology, research, and education. In response, the Maldives adopted an India First policy, prioritising its relationship with the larger, more powerful neighbour. Solih's administration actively pursued closer ties with New Delhi through the "India First" policy, resulting in numerous agreements, granting permission for India to operate minor military detachments and emphasising India as a reliable ally for Maldives.


In addition to the Colombo Security Conclave, which involves Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives, India too has offered financial support for the Greater Male Connectivity project and engaged in various infrastructure partnerships. Moreover, the Maldives heavily depends on trilateral maritime security collaboration with India and Sri Lanka. The primary goal of this partnership is to address shared maritime security threats like illicit trafficking, piracy, and illegal or unreported fishing. These nations work together to safeguard their respective territories from encroachment by other countries. This collaboration is essential given the Maldives' reliance on the ocean for domestic food security, and exports (especially fish and related products), making the protection of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) a critical priority.


India and the Maldives have significantly strengthened their bilateral ties through a series of agreements in recent years. These include a substantial $500 million in grants and financing dedicated to enhancing maritime connectivity, an $800 million line of credit from the Export-Import Bank of India, and a pivotal agreement for exchanging information on commercial maritime vessel movements. The relationship saw a notable upswing, particularly following President Solih's third visit to India in August 2022.


India has played a pivotal role in providing timely assistance to the Maldives during critical times. During the 2004 Tsunami and the water crisis in Malé in December 2014, India took the lead in extending aid. In a swift response under Operation NEER, India deployed Air Force aircraft and Navy ships to transport bottled drinking water to Malé, showcasing India's proximity and ability to assist the Maldives during emergencies. These instances, dating back to 1988, 2004, and 2014, highlighted India's capacity to come to the Maldives' aid during distressing situations, a fact widely recognized and appreciated by both the Maldivian government and its people.

Is India at a loss? 


The Maldives, an island nation located around 2,000 km from India, holds strategic importance for India in the Indian Ocean due to its geographical proximity and partnership, enhancing India's regional influence. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Congratulated Dr Muizzu on being elected as President of the Maldives. And tweeted on the social media platform x "India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region."


However, many speculate that Dr Muizzu's win will become a cause of concern for India. The India-oriented foreign policy of Maldives under President Solih's five-year term may go in an opposite direction under the presidency of Muizz, giving way to a preference for China. India faces a significant risk of losing goodwill in the Maldives, particularly considering China's 'String of Pearls' strategy. 


Recent developments over the past two decades reveal China's gradual encroachment and advancements in India's nearby regions. India is deeply troubled by China's extensive economic influence in the Maldives. The revelation that Maldives owes 70% of its external aid to China raises significant concerns, drawing parallels to what Rajapaksa did in Sri Lanka during his tenure. 


Moreover, The Maldives' membership in SAARC is also crucial for India to uphold its regional leadership. Maldives, being part of SAARC, holds strategic significance in this context. Notably, during the aftermath of the Uri attack, India sought a boycott of the SAARC summit in Pakistan, and the reluctance of the Maldives to fully comply with this call was notable within the SAARC member nations. But now under Muizzu, this support seems unlikely if any such situation arises.


China's interests 


The competition for influence among neighbouring countries is a familiar dynamic for both China and India. China initially held an advantage with its substantial financial resources and development loans through the Belt and Road Initiative. However, India has increasingly asserted its influence in the region in recent years, shaping a more competitive landscape.


China is expressing interest in establishing a free-trade agreement with the Maldives, a proposal that was put on hold during President Solih's tenure due to his cautious approach towards China. The notion of a 'free-trade' arrangement seems contradictory, given China's economic might with a USD 17 trillion economy compared to the Maldives' USD 5 billion. President Solih has effectively delayed discussions on this deal, acting upon his scepticism towards China. However, with the potential future leadership of Muizzu, talks regarding the agreement will likely pick up momentum.


Another interest would be making Maldives, the next victim of its debt trap policy. Numerous instances of the 'Chinese debt trap' can be observed globally, where China employs the 'debt for equity' approach, indebting smaller nations and later seeking strategic assets in return. Maldivians can witness a similar situation not far from their shores. The case of China securing a 99-year lease for Sri Lanka's Hambantota port is a clear demonstration of this strategic approach.


However, The Maldives can't disregard India, its primary and dependable neighbour. And India can't simply sever ties with the Maldives after investing millions in the country. There are important boundaries to consider by Maldives to maintain peaceful ties with India such as not hosting Chinese assets, not entering strategic agreements, not collaborating on projects, or favouring visits to India over China.

Interestingly, Mohamed Shareef, Muizzu’s foreign policy advisor, conveyed positive signals regarding the Maldives' relationship with both India and China. Shareef emphasised India's significance in the Indian Ocean, minimised apprehensions about China, and reiterated the Maldives' dedication to maintaining a strong alliance with India. Notably, Muizzu is set to continue the diplomatic tradition of Maldivian presidents by making India his first foreign visit after assuming office.

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