Though known as pro-China, the new Maldivian President Dr. Mohamed Muizzu aims to make a departure from partisanship in geopolitics
The new Maldivian President, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, who is generally branded as pro-China, has indicated that he will follow a balanced policy on India and China and avoid identifying himself entirely with one or the other regional power.
A perusal of Muizzu’s election campaign speeches shows that he has learnt a lesson from the defeats of his predecessors, Ibrahim Solih in 2023, and Abdulla Yameen in 2018. These defeats were attributed to their very close proximity to one of the two powers, either India or China.
Solih was branded as India’s vassal and Yameen as China’s client and both lost elections because of the vigorous campaigns against them on the issue of their respective foreign affinities.
Aware of this, Muizzu showed himself to be a different kettle of fish in his election speeches. He kept saying that he would steer clear of geopolitical blocs and work with all foreign powers without compromising Maldives’ independence and sovereignty.
However, since he was backed by former President Yameen in the election, and was a member of Yameen’s party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), Muizzu would not pinpoint and criticize Yameen’s pro-China policy or criticize China by name. But he repeatedly stated that he would be non-aligned.
He did criticize India, but again, never directly. He did not name India in his diatribes against Solih’s government. He would only say that the decisions of the Solih government were taken “by a foreign power”.
Here are some of Muizzu’s pronouncements on foreign policy during the election campaign: Muizzu said that he would “counteract threats to Maldives’ independence from the policies of the Solih government.”
Speaking at a campaign event at Raa Ungoofaaru, Muizzu said that President Solih’s foreign policy had “compromised the Maldives’ national interest and its sovereignty.”
He charged that President Solih’s government was being influenced to the point that Maldives’ affairs were dictated by another country.
“The affairs of our country, have been arranged in such a way by the government of today, that it is impossible to do a single thing unless it is endorsed by a neighbouring country,” Muizzu said.
However, Muizzu always took care not to name India in this context.
He even went to the extent of saying that “the protection of the country’s independence should get priority over development projects.” In other words, no development project should be at the cost of the country’s sovereign rights.
Taking up an important issue related to India, Muizzu assured that foreign military service personnel would not be allowed to remain in the Maldives under his watch.
India has two military helicopters with their crew in the Maldives, ostensibly to evacuate the sick from distant islands in the archipelago. But an influential section of Maldivians see the objective of the Indian military unit as espionage rather than emergency medical aid. They refuse to believe that Maldivians cannot be trusted to fly the helicopters.
Suspicion of Indian intentions has been the basis of the “India Out” campaign which annoyed India no end.
At another election meeting, Muizzu said his broad foreign policy strategy would centre around “fostering strong and balanced relationships with friendly nations while preserving the Maldives’ interests.”
He also expressed his commitment to avoiding discrimination against any nation. There would be “clear boundaries for diplomatic ties”, he stated and added: “We will not praise one country too much nor distance ourselves excessively from it.”
Since the change of guard in the Maldives is a fait accompli India should give a thought to Muizzu’s views on such issues. It should dawn on New Delhi that its earlier backing of Solih (with generous developmental funds and budgetary support) on the basis of some understandings had failed to deliver the goods.
Solih’s administration had failed both on policy and implementation fronts. It was lacklustre and confused. It had failed its benefactor.
Given a chance, Muizzu could prove to be a better bet than Solih given his reputation of being a good administrator. With a doctorate in Civil Engineering from Leeds University in the UK, Muizzu had made a name for himself in the construction field as Housing Minister in Yameen’s government and also as Mayor of Male. He had supervised many key construction projects including the Seenimale bridge built with Chinese aid.
With Muizzu at the helm from his inauguration on November 17, India should be able to finish many of its projects including an ambitious bridge project rivalling the Chinese-built Seenamale bridge.
It is perhaps in this hope that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday to say: “India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.”
But good relations will hinge on a level-headed approach on the part of Muizzu and Modi to the military helicopters issue.
The Yameen government had wanted India to take back the helicopters with their crew because they were not doing what they were supposed to do – namely train Maldivian pilots to handle the aircraft and leave. The government and a section of Maldivians feared that an Indian military presence, however benign or not, might trigger an India-China conflict on their soil.
But India would not take the choppers and their crew back. Not surprisingly, the successor pro-India government of Ibrahim Solih renewed the helicopter agreement.
A former Maldivian ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed, was quoted by the Maldives Journal as saying that India had also demanded that no country other than India should have any right to use the Uthuru Thila Falhu dockyard. The Yameen administration did not agree to such a demand, the former Ambassador recalled.
The Maldives Journal further alleged that India had sought a 99 year lease of 15 hectares of land on HDh. Hanimaadhoo and S. Gan, both adjacent to the islands’ international airports. The demand was accompanied by a massive credit line of USD 1,940,000,000, the journal alleged. It was feared that any such deal would impinge on Maldivian sovereignty.
With India considering Maldives as an integral and essential part of its defence strategy in the Indian Ocean in view of China’s daring forays into it, and Muizzu’s political party wanting to disentangle itself from a potential India-China standoff on its soil or immediate neighbourhood, security and sovereignty issues will crop up in relations between India and the Maldives.
These issues will have to be tackled by New Delhi and Male with understanding and finesse. India’s massive economic development projects and further plans for cooperation in the political and strategic spheres will bear fruit only with their resolution.
(This article appeared in The Citizen)