Geopolitics

Muizzu Turns Maldives Red
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 20 Dec , 2023

Exercise ‘Ekatha 2023′ between the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) Coast Guard and the Indian Navy Marine Commandos (MARCOS) was held in Maldives in June 2023 in Maldives; to enhance MNDF’s capacity and security of Maldives. Concurrent was exercise ‘Ex Ekuverin’ between the Indian Army and MNDF in Uttarakhand, India from June 11 to June 24, 2023 to enhance interoperability in CI/CT operations and disaster relief. Also, Coast Guards of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives have been holding trilateral exercises to enhance interoperability and friendship.

In pre-election speeches, Muizzu indirectly accused India of influencing decisions of the Maldives’ government.

Mohamed Muizzu was elected eighth President of Maldives in September 2023. He eulogizes Abdulla Yameen, former president of Maldives, who is unabashedly pro-China. Visiting Beijing in 2022, Muizzu told Chinese officials his party’s return to office would “script a further chapter of strong ties between our two countries”. The World Bank says Maldives faces significant economic risks from rising spending, high debt and external shocks, despite a projected 6.5% growth in real GDP in 2023, and an average 5.4% in 2024-2025.

In pre-election speeches, Muizzu indirectly accused India of influencing decisions of the Maldives’ government. He also said foreign troops in Maldives were unacceptable – without mentioning Indian naval helicopters and crews in Maldives for humanitarian assistance and medical evacuation from far-flung islands in Maldives.

For the inauguration of his government on November 17, 2023, Muizzu invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, Union Minister Kirin Rijijju represented India. Other foreign dignitaries also included Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremsinghe and Special Envoy of Chinese President and State Councilor Shen Yiqin, who had visited Maldives in 2014 during Yameen’s presidency. After taking oath as President, Muizzu said, “The country will not have any foreign military personnel in Maldives.” Next day Muizzu told Rijijju that Indian troops be withdrawn from Maldives.

PM Modi met President Muizzu on the sidelines of the COP28 Summit at Dubai, UAE. According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), both discussed ways to further deepen bilateral partnership and agreed to set up a core group. MEA did not give any details of the core group.

Muizzu could go deeper into the Chinese fold than Yameen…

Some reports about the number of Indian troops in Maldives indicate 77 – crew of two helicopters and one Dornier aircraft plus maintenance personnel. But Muizzu said in a press conference on December 3 that the number of Indian soldiers has risen to 89, could increase even more, and added, “During all efforts undertaken before this and efforts undertaken to date, the Indian government has come to an agreement with us to withdraw the troops.”

Concurrently, a Maldives’ Member of Parliament announced that a high-level committee has been formed to address “difficulties faced in the undertaking projects initiated by India” in the Maldives as per agreements between India and the previous Maldives’ government. This indicates that slashing of some Indian projects may be resorted to given the mood of Muizzu’s government.

In 2006, India gifted a refurbished a 46-metre long Trinkat-class fast attack craft to Maldives. Before being gifted to the Maldives, the ship served in the Indian Navy as INS ‘Tillanchang’. It was commissioned into the MNDF as MCGS ‘Huravee’ on April 16, 2006. In 2018, it was refitted at a naval dockyard in Visakhapatnam on request from the MNDF. However, the MNDF returned the vessel to India in May 2023. The vessel was re-inducted into the Indian Navy on December 14 as INS ‘Tarmugli’. Incidentally, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh handed over an indigenous Fast Patrol Vessel (FPV) and a Landing Craft Assault ship to the MNDF in May 2023.

On December 14 Muizzu, cancelled the MNDF-Indian Navy agreement signed during the visit of PM Modi to Maldives in 2019; for undertaking hydrographic surveys in Maldives to improve maritime navigation, environmental protection, management of coastal zones, economic development, and bolster security and defence cooperation. Muizzu could go deeper into the Chinese fold than Yameen looking at the following indicators:

It is important for policy makers to examine India’s waning influence in our immediate neighbourhood and institute remedial measures.

•  Maldives didn’t participate in the NSA-level 6th Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) held on December 7, 2023 in Mauritius citing “administrative issues”.

•  Further making his first foreign visit to India or even Sri Lanka despite the Sri Lankan President attending his oath taking ceremony, Muizzu visited Turkey instead to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who dreams of establishing an Islamic Emirate.

•  Maldives’ Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef attended ‘China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation’ in Yunnan, China during December 2023 and said the Muizzu government is dedicated to fortify China-Maldives relations. He spoke of exploring novel avenues of collaboration and cooperation with China.

•  Also in Yunnan, Maldives’ Economic Minister Mohamed Saeed welcomed China’s assurance to increase flights to Maldives and said more Chinese projects in Maldives like the Sinamale’ bridge and Hiyaa flats in Hulhumale’ Phase II can be anticipated. 

China will go all out to exploit the Muizzu regime and keep India out to maximum extent. The Maldives-China-Pakistan-Turkey nexus is likely to grow on the sea and terror front.

The anti-India sentiment in Maldives, which contributed towards Muizzu becoming president, did not grow overnight. It was carefully nurtured which either our mission in Male was not aware of or ignored viewing Maldives a small country. It is important for policy makers to examine India’s waning influence in our immediate neighbourhood and institute remedial measures. We must also acknowledge that China maintains covert PLA presence in all its projects abroad – can we learn something from this? Looking at Yameen’s China tilt, should we have offered civilian helicopters and a Dornier aircraft to Maldives in 2019 instead of naval aircraft?

China will go all out to exploit the Muizzu regime and keep India out to maximum extent. The Maldives-China-Pakistan-Turkey nexus is likely to grow on the sea and terror front. Connecting the dots should include the recent feting of Pakistan’s Army Chief by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Victoria Nuland, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. With China’s focus and growing presence in the IOR (spy ships included), Muizzu may allow Chinese hydrographic survey in Maldives under joint training or another pretext.

Most important is to watch out for China establishing a military base in Maldives. Visiting Maldives in September 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping secured Maldivian support for China’s ’21st century maritime silk road’. Abdulla Yameen was the first Maldives President to make a state visit to China in December 2017. According to Zhiyong of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China is promoting Maldives as a maritime pivot; Maldives could become supply base for Chinese military and civil vessels.

Ahmed Naseem, former Maldives’ Foreign Minister warned in April 2016 of indications that Maldives was looking to allow China build a port at Gaadhoo Island in the southern atoll. He pointed out that “people had already been evacuated from the region and that the Chinese were building roads there”. He went on to say, “I believe Yameen has done irreparable damage to India-Maldives relations and his actions will change the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. The security issues of the region need to be re-assessed and appropriate steps taken to keep the sea lanes safe and secure for the benefit of the regional countries”.

If the Chinese were developing roads in Gadhoo Island during April 2016, possibly there would have been a secret deal between Xi and Yameen during Xi’s visit to Maldives in September 2014.

That was more than seven years ago and what development China has done in Gadhoo Island since then is not known, The island, 437 km from Male, in 20i8 had a population of just 2,910. The Island has a length of 1,850 km and width of 0.580 km. If the Chinese were developing roads in Gadhoo Island during April 2016, possibly there would have been a secret deal between Xi and Yameen during Xi’s visit to Maldives in September 2014.

China’s strategy in such cases is to portray development of Gadhoo Island under pretext of tourism infrastructure initially. This would be followed by a supply, berthing and maintenance base for China, Maldives and friendly countries. This is what China did in Seychelles years back by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with that country. In time, Chinese vessels will commence berthing there on semi-permanent / permanent basis. Given the location of Gadhoo Island in the Indian Ocean, this Chinese military base will severely impinge on the security of India and that of the region.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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