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With its relationship with India facing headwinds, Maldives chart a new diplomatic course, embracing a strategic pivot amidst the rising tide of Chinese influence
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army
Much water has flown under the bridge since Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu returned from his visit to China. Immediately after touching down in Male he told reporters, "Maldives may be small but it does not give countries the license to bully us." Muizzu said this with reference to the row between Maldives and India when three Maldivian deputy ministers made derogatory remarks during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Lakshadweep, Maldives suspended these politicians and the Indian Chamber of Commerce appealed to Indian tourism and trade associations to stop promoting Maldives, as was reported in these columns earlier (https://www.spslandforces.com/experts-speak/?id=1091&h=Maldivian-Backfill).
Next came a shocker for Muizzu as Adam Azim of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) led by former pro-India president Mohammad Solih, won a landslide victory in the Male Mayoral elections defeating his rival Aishath Azima Shakoor of Muizzu's People's National Congress (PNC) by 2,002 votes.
In the backdrop of Muizzu laying March 15, 2024 as the deadline for 77 Indian military personnel to leave the island nation, Maldives has signed a $37 million deal with Turkey to buy military drones for patrolling the high seas - a task that was so far done by India in partnership with the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). According to Maldivian media, money for the Turkish drones has been allocated from the state's contingency budget and the finance ministry has already released part of the payment.
Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu sets March 15, 2024, as the deadline for 77 Indian military personnel to leave the island nation
Maldives is likely to procure the 'Aksungur' drones, produced by the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). At this stage it is not known whether Maldives plans to acquire the unarmed aerial vehicle (UAV) or the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) version of the 'Aksungur', which is to have six hard-points (three on each wing with 500 kg, 300 kg and 150 kg capacities) with provisions to carry combinations of missiles, anti-submarine weapons and bombs.
Indian military personnel in Maldives operated and maintained two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALHs) and a Dornier aircraft gifted to the MNDF by India, plus training the MNDF. The Dornier carried out reconnaissance flights by the Maldivian military against suspicious ships, gun and narcotics trafficking while the helicopters were used for transport of patients from far flung islands to hospitals in Malé.
The recent death of a 13-year-old because of delayed medical evacuation and the failure of the local authorities to use Indian helicopters for the purpose has created a new controversy. A Parliamentary committee has initiated a probe into the issue and Muizzu himself has come under criticism by the opposition MDP.
Apparently, India is hedging around Muizzu's deadline to revert Indian military personnel from Maldives by March 15. Randhir Jaiswal, spokesperson of External Affairs Ministry told the media on January 18 that bilateral discussions were an ongoing process and the recent meeting between Maldivian Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer and his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar in Kampala on sidelines of the NAM summit focused on finding mutually workable solutions to enable the "continued operation of Indian aviation platforms" that provide humanitarian and medevac services to the Maldives. Regarding Muizzu's visit to India, Jaiswal said both sides are facilitating high-level engagements with a constructive agenda based on mutually convenient dates and timelines.
Much is being made in the Indian media of former President Abdulla Yameen leaving the PPM to hold deliberations within his own political party – the People's National Front (PNF). However, to view this as a split between Muizzu and Yameen would be wrong. Yameen is even more pro-China than Muizzu and has been Muizzu's mentor always. Despite being under house arrest, Yameen was allowed to hold a meeting of the PNF. There is every possibility that this political arrangement (akin to the two communist parties in Nepal) is on Chinese advice to counter winds blowing against Muizzu. After the parliamentary elections, both will likely support each other and may even merge into one political party if found convenient.
Maldives signs a $37 million deal with Turkey for military drones, ending India's role in patrolling the high seas
Immediately after Muizzu's five-day visit to Beijing, China's Vice Foreign Minister Sun Haiyan made a two-day visit to Maldives. This was followed by news of the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 coming to dock in Maldives. Maldives' foreign ministry has said that the Chinese vessel is only coming to make a port call for rotation of personnel and replenishment while in its waters, which is an obvious cover.
In 2019, Maldives cancelled the hydrographic surveying agreement with India. The Chinese have been undertaking hydrographic surveys in the Indian Ocean in recent years; mapping the sea bed and collecting seismic and bathymetric data to facilitate submarine operations. This is the task Xiang Yang Hong 03 will be undertaking in Maldives, no matter what Maldives states. It has also been covered in these columns earlier that China plans to establish a port in Maldives (possibly at Gadhoo Island – 437 km from Male) on the pretext of establishing a transshipment point - like China has done in Seychelles.
Muizzu signed a number of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) during his recent China visit. These included one on Strategic Cooperation for 'four years' and another on developing the Blue Economy. China is already committed to building a commercial port in Male. Also, Muizzu has ordered a review of the 100 odd projects in Maldives that India is undertaking. In all probability, the 2021 India-Maldives agreement for the Coastguard Harbour project in Uthara Thila Failu would also get axed on Chinese advice.
China's Vice Foreign Minister Sun Haiyan visits Maldives, followed by the docking of the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03, raising concerns about China's strategic interests in the region
Before India-Maldives relations soured over the derogatory tweets by the three Maldivian deputy ministers, Maldives had proposed Muizzu's visit to India towards the end of January 2024. The issue perhaps got sidelined because of the fracas. Now the abovementioned media briefing by Randhir Jaiswal, spokesperson of External Affairs Ministry indicates Muizzu's India visit is perhaps under discussion. However, whether Muizzu will visit India before the parliamentary elections is questionable.
Getting the Indian military personnel out of Maldives was a plank used by Maldives in his pre-election speeches. He now has full China backing and China is in a hurry looking at the 'four years' 'Strategic Cooperation MoU. It will be a terrific win for India if Maldives retains the Indian helicopters and military personnel; hopefully our diplomats are not working on the retention until the April 2024 general elections in India.
Muizzu met Admiral John Aquilino, Commander US Indo-Pacific Command recently and greeted India on its 75th Republic Day. At the same time, Muizzu could unceremoniously expel Indian military personnel on March 16 or create conditions for their reversion. According to a post on X, Maldives is bringing back ISIS terrorists from Turkey (https://twitter.com/vijaygajera/status/1746840817778692329?s=20). Is this on China's advice or a Muizzu-Erdogan plan against India?
Finally, with Maldives offering a berth to China's spy ship and possibly a trans-shipment port-cum-base, India needs to seriously review its foreign policy in the immediate neighbourhood. Sheikh Hasina winning another term in Bangladesh is good but China is ringing us from all directions, which also suits American plans of an India-China war to extract strategic and economic benefits.