On a perilous path
The Maldives’ newly elected President faces an uphill struggle, writes, Yvonne Gill as discord is already brewing and his pro-China, anti-India agenda may provedifficult to implement
Mohamed Muizzu, the newly-elected Maldivian President, rode to power on an agenda that may appear to be related to the country’s foreign policy, an aggressive ‘India Out’ rhetoric. But the crux of the policy he elaborates is to bring back China as the major investor in infrastructure projects to mitigate the economic woes of the country, which, paradoxically, is facing a debt crisis from its previous borrowings. These total $US7 billion, or 113.5 per cent of its GDP, as of 2022-end, according to World Bank data. Chinese debts alone accounted for 29 per cent of the Maldives’ gross domestic income in 2021.
The backlog of Chinese debts and the crash of tourism – the country’s main revenue source – during the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in this financial crisis, which partly contributed to former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s defeat in the September election.
Toeing the pro-China line of hismentor Abdullah Yameen – who was President between 2013 and 2018 but is now in jail, having been convicted on charges of money-laundering, fraud and corruption – the populist thrust of Muizzu’s election campaign was his promise to evict a small Indian military contingent that has been present in the Maldives for several years now.
President Muizzurequested New Delhi to withdraw its military personnel from the Maldives when India’s Minister of Earth Sciences, Kiren Rijijup, paid him a courtesy call after he was sworn in on November 17. The new President has also pledged to cancel 100-odd agreements signed between the two countries.
In contrast, the outgoing President Solih and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had pursued an ‘India First’ policy, reciprocating India’s Neighbourhood First Policy, a core component of New Delhi’s foreign policy of maintaining peaceful relations and pursuing collaborative synergetic co-development with its neighbours. Even otherwise, Indo-Maldivian ties have generally been cordial, except during Yameen’s presidency.
In fact, Indian defence forces and the navy have long been helping the archipelago to secure its expansive exclusive economic zone (EEZ) against illegal fishing, narcotics, arms trafficking, and extremism. India has also set up a coastal surveillance radar system, a military hospital, and a training facility for the Maldivian National Defence Force, besides providing them with military hardware.
Although Muizzu raised the spectre of the threat to the island nation’s sovereignty from India’s military presence, Mohamed Firuzul Abdul Khaleel, Undersecretary for Public Policy, made it clear in a recent statement that there is nothing secretive about the Indian contingent, comprising 77 Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives.
Of these,‘24 individuals are involved in helicopter operations, 25 are engaged in the operations of a Dornier aircraft, 26 are assigned to a second helicopter’s operations, and an additional two individuals are responsible for the maintenance and engineering works of these aircraft,’ the official added.
The Indian aircraft, including two helicopters, have been helping to airlift people living on isolated islands to nearby hospitals for treatment and to fly doctors to remote locations. The aircraft are also pressed into search-and-rescue operations and surveillance to check illegal fishing. No Indian personnel are involved in combat duties, New Delhi has clarified.
The Maldives, with over 1,200 coral islands straddling the southern and northern hemispheres across the Equator, has traditionally been known as a tourists’ paradise for its pristine beaches, ring-shaped atolls and clear turquoise lagoons.
But today, the archipelago’s low-lying isles spread over 90,000 square km of sea are not only a climate hotspot but also a contentious geopolitical region of the Indian Ocean, as the Maldives lies on key international shipping lanes.
With India being its nearest large neighbour, the people of the two countries have long enjoyed close cultural and trade relations in a relationship that goes back decades, since the Maldives gained independence in 1965. A large number of Maldivians also visit India for trade, education and medical treatment.
Things, however, began to change rapidly after China set up its embassy in the capital Malé in 2011. With its growing belligerence in the Indo-Pacific, Beijing’s intrigues and interference in the archipelago’s internal politics began to show up in the blatant anti-India campaign unleashed by a section of corrupt, opportunist politicians, who openly called for greater cooperation with China and a downgrading of economic and security ties with India.
As Beijing gained a foothold in Malé, the anti-India campaign grew shriller, and Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic leader and the first directly-elected President of the Maldives, was forced to resign. The turmoil that followed brought Abdulla Yameento power in 2013. During his tenure, the country joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), implementing Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including the construction of 7,000 flats and a first-of-its-kind bridge linking Malé with the nearby airport island of Hulhule. Generous loans were provided for the projects by Chinese banks.
The new President highlighted the fact that ‘we are situated in a very strategic location, in which many of the sea lanes of communication go across our country’. He had previously told voters that foreign investment was needed to develop ports and other infrastructure to create a tax-free zone on the island. One may a recall how a similar promise to create a tax-free trading hub adjoining the Chinese-funded Hambantota sea port landed neighbouring Sri Lanka in a debt trap.
Yet, over the last five years, Indo-Maldives cooperation has witnessed an upward trajectory. More tourists from India than any other country visited the Maldives in 2020. Even further back, the two countries had close, cordial relations. India was the first country to help the Maldives thwart a coup attempt backed by Tamil mercenaries in 1988, and to provide aid in the aftermath of the devastating tsunamis of 2004 and 2014. Again, during the pandemic, India was the first to provide Covid vaccines for mass inoculation in the Maldives. As the country’s largest trading partner, India has been working on the Greater Malé Connectivity Project that will connect the capital to nearby islands.
India has also extended bilateral and development assistance to the Maldives for a medical complex in Malé, a trade partnership and investment for several infrastructure projects, and to set up hospitals, community centres and schools.
Given Muizzu’s rather unpopular image as the Mayor of Malé and Yameen’s disqualification from contesting the election, observers of the Maldivian political scene had initially given Solih a fair chance of being re-elected for a second term.
In fact, Solih worked assiduously to make the Maldives a model of good governance and the rule of law. Indeed, his efforts against corruption and at building democratic institutions did earn him laurels. But dissension within his own party and the vicious anti-India campaign led to his defeat. A big blow to his candidature was the departure of Mohamed Nasheed from the Maldives Democratic Party. The country’s worsening post-Covid economic condition, unemployment and burgeoning foreign debt, and Solih’s failure to deliver big new infrastructure projects,further helped the opposition seal his fate.
However, not all is well in Muizzu’s ruling coalition. Revolts have started brewing against his leadership, with his mentor Yameen forming a new party along with eight other leaders from the ruling party. Without a majority in the People’s Majlis (the Maldives’ legislative body), the President will not be able to implement his pro-China agenda. And with the elections to the People’s Majlis due in 2024 and his colleagues deserting him, Muizzu could be in for a rude shock.
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London