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With Muizzu becoming Maldives President, India again faces Chinese challenge in neighbourhood

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By ETV Bharat English Team

Published : Oct 3, 2023, 7:43 PM IST

With pro-China Mohamed Muizzu set to assume the office of the President of the Maldives, India may again have to deal with increased Chinese presence in the neighbourhood which threatens New Delhi’s strategic and economic interests, writes ETV Bharat’s Aroonim Bhuyan.

Even as outgoing Maldives President Ibrahim Solih requested President-elect Mohamed Muizzu to ensure good governance and continuation of projects, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated the latter on Tuesday and sought reinforcement of ties between China and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.
President-elect of the Maldives Mohamed Muizzu speaks with supporters in Male, Maldives, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (AP Photo)

New Delhi: Even as outgoing Maldives President Ibrahim Solih requested President-elect Mohamed Muizzu to ensure good governance and continuation of projects, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated the latter on Tuesday and sought reinforcement of ties between China and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.

Muizzu, a protégé of former President Abdulla Yameen, known for his pro-China stance, defeated Solih in the presidential runoff held last weekend. Currently serving as the Mayor of the Maldives’ capital Male, Muizzu was the joint candidate of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).

Initially, Yameen of the PPM was nominated as the joint candidate of the PNC and the PPM. But since he is serving an 11-year jail term due to a money laundering case, he became ineligible to contest the election. As a result, Muizzu of the PNC was nominated as the joint PNC-PPM candidate.

With Muizzu set to assume office on November 11, India will be keenly watching what policies Male will adopt vis-à-vis New Delhi in terms of economic, defence and security cooperation. As part of New Delhi’s Neighbourhood First Policy, the Maldives is strategically significant to India because of its location in the Indian Ocean.

India and Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links steeped in antiquity and enjoy close, cordial and multi-dimensional relations. However, regime instability in the Maldives since 2008 has posed significant challenges to the India-Maldives relationship, particularly in the political and strategic spheres.

Ties between India and the Maldives deteriorated significantly when Yameen served as the President between 2013 and 2018. It was only after Solih came to power in 2018 that ties between New Delhi and Male improved.

When Solih requested Muizzu to ensure the continuation of projects, he meant India-supported infrastructure projects. Muizzu had made two contradictory statements regarding the Indian projects. On the one hand, he said that he would not disturb the India-supported projects and on the other, he said that he would review some of these projects.

“Last year, when Muizzu visited China, he said during a meeting with the Communist Party of China that relations between Male and Beijing would improve dramatically if his party comes back to power,” Anand Kumar, Associate Fellow in the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, told ETV Bharat. “It remains to be seen to what extent he harms India’s interests for the benefit of China.”

While serving as Minister of Housing and Infrastructure under Yameen, Muizzu oversaw a number of infrastructure projects funded by China, most notably the Sinamale Bridge. This bridge served as a vital connection linking Male, with the Velana International Airport on Hulhule.

At the same time, India suffered reverses in terms of its investments due to regime instability in the Maldives. In this connection, Kumar cited the cancellation of the GMR Group’s airport project in the archipelago nation. India’s GMR was awarded $270 million as compensation from Maldives after its $511-million contract to build the airport in Male was arbitrarily cancelled. The project was later handed over to Chinese companies.

“People are apprehensive that similar kinds of things will happen now that Muizzu has come to power,” Kumar said. China has invested heavily in the Maldives, both in terms of providing financial assistance as well as leasing a few islands in the name of development. The Maldives’ import dependency and more specifically issues of Chinese loan repayments have raised concerns of a ‘debt trap’.

China’s debt encumbers the Maldives’ ambitious “pathway to prosperity”. Concerns loom as this minuscule, tourism-reliant country finds itself heavily indebted to China. The construction of the bridge stands as just one among numerous significant ventures completed during the tenure of Yameen. In 2014, Yameen undertook the commitment to President Xi’s pet Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), thus facilitating the participation of Chinese enterprises in funding vital infrastructure undertakings within the Maldives. Approximately 70 percent of the Maldives' total debt is attributed to Chinese projects, with an annual payment of $92 million to China, constituting around 10 percent of the country’s entire budget.

On the other hand, India has been an important development assistance partner of the Maldives. The major completed and ongoing development assistance projects executed by India include the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Maldives Polytechnic, India-Maldives Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Studies, Technology Adoption Programme in Education Sector in Maldives, and the National College for Police and Law Enforcement.

Apart from these, cash grant projects are also being implemented by India. During the official visit of then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to the Maldives in March 2019, a cash grant of Rs 50 crore to Maldives for important bilateral projects was announced to support the projects related to socio-economic development. These include creation of infrastructure in the education, health and community development sectors. All of these projects have been completed.

India has also approved 47 high-impact community development projects, seven of which have been completed and inaugurated. Infrastructure and connectivity projects are also being implemented under the Exim Bank line of credit (LoC) of $800 million for which an agreement was signed in March 2019. A $100 million supplementary LoC, announced during President Solih’s August 2022 visit to India, was signed in October 2022. All these projects will now be under the scanner with Muizzu assuming power.

Although, India’s total share of exports to Maldives has been increasing on a year-by-year basis, its role as the leading supplier of goods and services is facing a huge challenge from China.

Defence and security cooperation between India and the Maldives will be another cause of concern for New Delhi. Although India continues to be an important partner of the Maldives, New Delhi cannot afford to be complacent over its position and must remain attentive to the developments in the Maldives. India must play a key role within the Indo-Pacific security space to ensure regional security in South Asia and surrounding maritime boundaries. China’s strategic footprint in India’s neighbourhood has increased. The Maldives has emerged as an important “pearl” in China’s “String of Pearls” construct in South Asia.

During his tenure as President, Yameen had brought in new legislation to lease out islands to China. In the long run, if China plans to convert any of the leased islands into a naval base in the archipelago, then it will have significant security implications for India.

Defence cooperation between India and the Maldives extends to the areas of joint exercises, maritime domain awareness, gifting of hardware, infrastructure development, etc. Key projects in the defence sector include the Composite Training Centre (CTC) for Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Coastal Radar System (CRS) and construction of new Ministry of Defence headquarters. During the August 2022 visit Solih to India, supply of a replacement ship for the earlier provided ship, CGS Huravee, to MNDF, supply of the second landing craft assault (LCA) to MNDF and the gifting of 24 utility vehicles to MNDF were announced. The 24 utility vehicles were handed over in October 2022.

The defence cooperation has now become a cause of concern because both Yameen’s PPM and the PNC had fuelled an ‘India Out’ campaign ahead of this year’s presidential election. The ‘India Out’ campaign was aimed at sparking hatred by creating scepticism about India's investments in the Maldives, the defence partnerships between the two sides, and the purported presence of Indian defence personnel in that country. However, President Solih, through a decree issued in April 2022, banned the ‘India Out’ campaign citing it as a “threat to national security”.

So what kind of policy should India adopt now towards the Maldives? “India should try to be friendly with Muizzu and see how things pan out,” Kumar, who has authored the book Multi-party Democracy in the Maldives and the Emerging Security Environment in the Indian Ocean Region, said. “Muizzu is aware that India is the Maldives’ closest neighbour.”

Also read: Explained: With Mohamed Muizzu winning Maldives presidential election, what now for India?

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