Context: Maldives has elected Mohamed Muizzu as President of Maldives. He will replace Ibrahim Solih as the President of Maldives. Mohamed Muizzu is seen as pro-China and has promised to remove Indian military personnel stationed in the country.
About Mohamed Muizzu
- Mohamed Muizzu belongs to Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the same party to which Abdulla Yameen belonged. He was earlier the Housing and Urban Development minister under the Presidency of Abdulla Yameen.
- Abdulla Yameen had close ties with China. President Muizzu is seen as a proxy for Abdulla Gayoom who pursued a pro-China tilt in his foreign policy and launched an ‘India-Out’ campaign.
- Mohamed Muizzu has indicated to continue with the India-Out campaign of Gayoom, calling for removal of India’s military personnel stationed in Maldives.
- The incumbent President Ibrahim Solih pursued an India-First Policy resulting in greater cooperation between India and Maldives over projects like Greater Male Connectivity Project, Security Cooperation and India’s assistance to Maldives during COVID-19 pandemic.
Concerns over the election of Pro-China President Muizzu of Maldives
- Concerns over India’s defence and security partnership: The stance taken by President Muizzu to remove the presence of military personnel from Maldives. These moves seem to be a continuation of earlier policies pursued by President Yameen when Indian Navy helicopters and personnel were requested to be removed from Maldives.
- Increasing China’s influence in Indian Ocean Region: The strategic location of Maldives near the International Sea lanes makes Maldives critical for China’s economic and energy security. To gain an increasing influence in Maldives, China has been courting Maldives as part of its Maritime Silk Route project of the larger Belt & Road Initiative.
- China’s infrastructure projects in Maldives: China has been heavily investing in physical and social infrastructure in Maldives by financing important projects like China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, Housing units and expansion of Velana International Airport.
- Free-Trade Agreement with China: President Abdulla Yameen signed the Free Trade Agreement with Maldives in 2017 to enhance trade and Maldivian marine exports to China. However, this agreement was not ratified by President Ibrahim Solih feared China will leverage its economic power to commercially dominate Maldives and pursue its geopolitical objectives. Ex. Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. President Muizzu is expected to ratify the FTA with China.
- China’s weaponisation of economic relations: China debt to Maldives accounts for one-fifth of Maldivian GDP and China has become a critical source of tourists to Maldives, which is critical for Maldivian economy.
Way forward for India
- Leveraging India’s strengths: India enjoys proximity, convergent security interests and deep cultural ties with Maldives. India has been the first responder to any crises in Maldives. Chinese has no diaspora or no military presence in Maldives as compared to India. Thus, the geographic and cultural connect that India enjoys with Maldives is hard for China to overcome.
- Prompt delivery of infrastructure projects: Slow progress on India backed India projects such as Greater Male Connectivity Project, this has increased attractiveness of China’s projects in Maldives. India needs to build on prompt delivery of India’s infrastructure projects to make it attractive for countries to have deeper relations with India.
- Highlight China’s policies: India should highlight Chinese designs of using its commercial and business ties to pursue its geopolitical agenda. Chinese debt trap diplomacy and designs to accommodate Maldives in its ‘Strings of Pearls’ strategy for countering India. Thus, India should continue to assist Maldives to make its economy more resilient.
- Pursue multiparty democratic engagement: India must not take sides in the domestic politics of neighbouring countries and pursue broader ties with all voices