The island nation is a strategic asset for New Delhi due to its location. But with the election of a new government, China appears to have wrested away our prize. That’s hardly surprising since President Mohamed Muizzu ran for elections on an ‘India Out’ campaign. Why?
Researched by: Rachel John
First, a relationship story
Why Maldives matters: It’s all about location, location, location. Maldives is located in a key position in the Indian Ocean—and straddles important sea routes of communication:
- It is important to India because the nation lies barely 70 nautical miles away from Minicoy island in Lakshadweep—and 300 nautical miles away from our western coast.
- Maldives became significant to China when President Xi took power in 2013—and launched the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The multi-billion dollar global project is a wildly ambitious plan to connect Asia, Africa and Europe with overland corridors and maritime sea lanes. (We explained it here.)
- Maldives is also close to Diego Garcia—a UK overseas territory and military outpost for the United States in the Indian Ocean. That’s why the US and Maldives signed a defence agreement in 2020—the first that it has signed with any country other than India.
A long honeymoon: India and Maldives enjoy a close relationship that stretches back to its independence in 1965—when New Delhi was the first to recognise its sovereignty.
Over the decades, New Delhi has played the role of the loyal friend in crisis.
The two countries first became close back in 1988—when India sent troops to save President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom from a military coup. India also was key to relief efforts after the tsunami hit Maldives in 2004—and later during a drinking water crisis in 2014. In 2009, the relationship was sealed with a defence agreement signed by then President Mohamed Nasheed. The deal integrated the Maldives military with India’s coastal defence network.
Enter, China: But things started to sour with China’s entry into the picture in 2013—which is also the year that Abdulla Yameen became president. Yameen inked a free trade agreement with China—and became more confrontational in his relationship with New Delhi. Example: He returned two Indian helicopters that were gifted to the coast guard. Adding insult to injury: In 2017, three Chinese warships docked in the Maldives for joint training sessions.
We’re BFFs again! In 2018, calm was restored when Yameen was defeated in the elections by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih—who unabashedly embraced an “India First” foreign policy. But the relationship between Solih and New Delhi was a bit too cosy—much to the discomfort of Maldives public.
The ‘India Out’ campaign: There has always been simmering resentment at India’s Big Brother role—and its military presence in the country. Solih’s open preference for New Delhi exacerbated this anger—and he was accused of “allowing Indian boots on the ground”, and “compromising the sovereignty” of the nation. Solih’s dubious moves included:
- Inking a deal with New Delhi to build and maintain a coastguard harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu—but keeping the terms extremely secretive—raising fears of an Indian military base.
- Responding to the ‘India Out’ protests by introducing a new law to criminalise protests “that affect the country’s relations with other nations.”
Return of Yameen: Things became even trickier with the release of Yameen from prison in 2020—after being cleared of embezzlement charges. The protests have become noisier and more visible—and what was a grassroots movement became highly political. Although Yameen is now under house arrest—on corruption and money laundering charges—his close supporter Mohamed Muizzu won the 2023 elections.
Say hello to Mohamed Muizzu: He is Yameen’s man in the presidential mansion. He ran a strident campaign targeting Solih as an India stooge—accusing him of “compromising Maldives' independence and sovereignty by seeking India's endorsement for every major decision.” And like Yameen, Muizzu is also seen as close to Beijing.
The deep freeze begins…
On Saturday—the day after Muizzu was sworn into office—he “formally requested” the Indian government to “withdraw its military personnel” from the country. He framed the directive as the “democratic will of the people of the Maldives”—noting that he’d received an electoral mandate to essentially kick India out.
Troops, what troops? Now, it isn’t clear if India has military personnel on the island. Hindustan Times confidently asserts that the claim is nonsense:
Firstly, contrary to Muizzu's assertion, India doesn't station troops in the Maldives. The fact is that India has only crews and technicians for its patrol vessel, Dornier aircraft, and two ALH helicopters, all adorned in Maldivian colours, for specific purposes such as medical evacuation, surveillance, and air rescue operations. These assets play a crucial role in humanitarian missions rather than representing a military force.
And Muizzu himself admits there are only 77 Indian military personnel in the Maldives.
But, but, but: The deal to develop a harbour in Uthuru Thillafalhu raised plenty of questions. The irony is that ‘The Action Plan on Defence Cooperation’ signed by none other than Yameen in 2016 included this clause:
“The Maldives side would enable the use of such infrastructure facilities by Indian Navy/Coast Guard for training, HADR and optional requirements for surveillance of the EEZ.”
[Opposition MP Ahmed Shiyam] alleged that the project to develop a dockyard and a harbor in the base was a ploy to secretly permit Indian military personnel to be based in the location. He said that the agreement included terminology to mislead the public such as rephrasing the designation of Indian military personnel to terms such as technicians and officials to allow them to be based at the location.
Now, we don’t know if there were indeed plans to establish a military presence—but it would hardly be surprising given Uthuru Thilafalhu’s location: “It is well-located to keep an eye on the incoming and outgoing traffic at the main port in Male and has the closest landing strip to the Maldivian capital.”
What’s next: Return of China?
Some experts say Muizzu is just posturing—to keep his anti-India constituency happy:
It is not a zero-sum game. Muiz is unlikely to pursue a policy that alienates New Delhi as the stakes are high. India is an important trade partner relative to China, and 'India Out' policy looked more a political gambit meant to get votes than a policy intention. I think it is being blown out of proportions, and there will be restraint.
But, but, but: Maldives owes somewhere between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion in Chinese loans—which provides excellent leverage. And the return of the pro-Beijing regime offers an excellent opportunity to re-enter Maldives—via development projects. India may not be entirely exiled, but it will no longer hold unchallenged sway over its “strategic asset.”
India’s big worry: New Delhi has long been battling China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy—to contain India:
String of pearls refers to a series of ports and allied facilities that extend from the Chinese mainland to the port in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. The facilities in the Indian Ocean Region—Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Chittagong (Bangladesh), and Sittwe (Myanmar)—effectively encircle India. China claims that this deployment is to protect its trade interests.
As of now, it is hard to read Muizzu’s long-term strategy, but if China takes over the Uthuru Thilafalhu project, it will be time for New Delhi to really worry.
The bottomline: Foreign policy experts point out that New Delhi had four years to consolidate its position in Maldives. Instead, it is now back to square one—thanks to an anti-India sentiment that it failed to address or contain. Some of our neighbours say the fault lies in India’s attitude—which makes even gestures of goodwill look suspect:
[O]utreach efforts and investments have given rise to perceptions that India is a pushy big neighbour only interested in securing its position against another giant… "It is a case of distrust that you see in assessing India's treatment of its smaller neighbours," said a former head of a South Asian foreign ministry, on condition of anonymity. "New Delhi doesn't trust the governments of these countries, particularly in deals with China, so it tries to exert pressure, micromanage even in a petty way and upsets the locals."
Deutsche Welle and Nikkei Asia are very good in assessing what Mohamed Muizzu’s election means for India’s strategic interests. Frontline offers a deep dive into India’s foreign policy missteps in countering China. The Hindustan Times and The Hindu offer a more optimistic view of what lies ahead for India. Our previous Big Story on the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka offers another view of Beijing’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy. Lowy Institute offers the big picture on India’s relationship with Maldives. ORF Online profiles Muizzu and his politics.