Perceived Chinese Threat May Stall Withdrawal Of Indian Military From Maldives – Analysis


Maldives’ decision not to use Indian helicopters may have caused the death of a 13-year old gravely sick boy in a distant island in the archipelago.   

Potential threats from China are likely to stall any Indian bid to withdraw its military personnel stationed in the Maldives. In fact, India has tactfully refuted the Maldives’ claim that it has agreed to withdraw as per the request of President Mohamad Muizzu.  

On Thursday, the Indian External Affairs Ministry refuted the Maldives’ claims that discussions on withdrawing Indian troops took place during a meeting between Maldivian Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer and his Indian counterpart Dr S. Jaishankar in Kampala on the side lines of the NAM summit.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry’s spokesperson, Randhir Jaiswal, stated in his weekly media briefing on January 18 that the discussions between the two nations were an “ongoing process.” He emphasised that the recent meeting focused on finding mutually workable solutions to enable the “continued operation of Indian aviation platforms” that provide humanitarian and medevac services to the Maldives.

The subject matter discussed was on “the continued operation of Indian aviation platforms” and not on “withdrawal”, according to the Indians.

However, Jaiswal declined to comment on the March 15 deadline given by the Maldivians to withdraw troops

Downgrading the status of the withdrawal issue, Jaiswal said that the discussions between officials who were part of “High-Level Core Group” talks held in Male on January 14. These would continue “soon” when a Maldivian delegation travels to India.

The dates for the visit would be based on mutual convenience, he added, leaving it vague to allow for political manoeuvring.

Jaiswal reaffirmed India’s commitment to its development projects in the Maldives. He claimed that these projects are progressing as planned, with India remaining a key development partner in line with Maldivian priorities.

Regarding a potential state visit of Maldivian President Dr Mohamed Muizzu to India, Jaiswal clarified that India and the Maldives are facilitating high-level engagements with a constructive agenda based on mutually convenient dates and timelines.

This statement suggests continuous dialogue and coordination at the highest levels, aiming to strengthen bilateral ties.

While the Maldives seeks to assert its sovereignty and reduce Indian military presence, the Indian focus is on maintaining humanitarian assistance and ongoing development cooperation.

The Maldivian stand was tough to being with, but in a meeting with Jaishankar in Kampala, Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer stressed the continuation of developmental cooperation even as he sought the early withdrawal of troops and claimed that India had agreed to troops withdrawal.

After a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early December on the sidelines of the CoP Climate Conference in Dubai, President Muizzu had also claimed that India had “agreed” to withdraw its troops.

On his return to Male from Beijing Muizzu went a step further and said that the Maldives “cannot be bullied” by bigger countries.

The Hindu daily said that more is expected to be heard on Muizzu’s position during his address to Parliament slated for February 5.

Muizzu’s demand that the Indian troops should be removed by March 15 is significant as Parliamentary elections are due on March 17. Muizzu’s party in in a minority in the Majlis, and the pro-Indian Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) being in a majority not.

Muizzu is in a political spot now as his coalition had lost the Male Mayoral election recently.

It is likely that President Muizzu and his ruling coalition will keep the withdrawal demand high on the agenda at least till the March 17 Majlis parliamentary elections because it had been one of the main items in his manifesto in the Presidential election in October 2023.

He won the elections on that platform and is compelled to fulfil it. He can amend the demand or even abandon it only if he wins the parliamentary polls and gets the political elbow room to do so,

The Indian military withdrawal issue has divided the Maldivian polity with the pro-Indian MDP wanting their retention. Muizzu does not have a free hand on this issue even in the domestic arena.

India, on the other hand, has a more long-term interest in keeping a military or security contingent in the Maldives to counter a growing Chinese threat to its dominance in the Indian Ocean.

During his recent visit to China Muizzu signed a number of MoUs including one on Strategic Cooperation for four years and another on the development of the Blue Economy, both of which have strategic implications for India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

China is already committed to building a commercial port in Male.

The Hindu said that the standoff over the military personnel could affect the 2021 Indo-Maldivian agreement on a Coastguard Harbour project in Uthara Thila Failu that was signed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and then-Maldives Defence Minister Marya Didi.

Going by the list of MoU’s signed, China will be loosening its purse strings significantly, a strategy India may not be able to match.

But India has certain advantages that China cannot match. The first is geographical proximity and long standing people-people contacts. India is also the place ordinary Maldivians go for medical treatment.

Secondly, every time there was an emergency situation in the Maldives, India had been the first responder. When Male had a drinking water crisis, Indian planes flew in water. When there was an attempted coup with the aid of Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries in 1988, the India rushed troops to crush the insurgency.

Experience shows that India will not respond to calls for withdrawal quickly. In June 1989 Sri Lankan President R.Premadasa gave an ultimatum to the Indian Peace Keeping Force to leave the country. But by the time the last Indian contingent left it was March 1990.

In view of the expected increase in the Chinese presence in the Maldives under the cover of infrastructural and other development works, India would consider the retention of an observation post in the archipelago a strategic imperative.

India has a presence now, albeit tiny. It will not allow that to be obliterated.

Non-use of Indian chopper may have caused the death of a Maldivian boy 

Critics s of the Muizzu government in the Maldives are alleging that the government’s policy of not using Indian aircraft meant for use in medical emergencies had caused the death of a 13 year old boy from the outlying Villingili Island in the Gaafu Alifu Atoll. 

The government had asked India to remove by March 15 the two military choppers and a Dornier aircraft donated to the Maldivian military for evacuating patients from distant islands in emergencies. 

The call to remove the aircraft and its operating personnel was part of the government’s “India Out” policy.

But the death of a 13 year old boy following the government’s decision not to use the Indian aircraft has put in question the wisdom of asking the Indians to get out and not using their aircraft.  

Following criticism in the social media, the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Mohamed A Haleem, said that “Maldivian” the national carrier of the Maldives, has announced a revision in its operational procedures to prioritise emergency medical transports over scheduled flights. 

Ameen took to X (formerly Twitter) to announce the policy change, saying: “Starting Saturday, changes will be implemented to Maldivian policies. If an emergency case arises, the highest priority will be given to medical transport in the flight schedule.” 

He acknowledged that the previous policy, enacted a decade ago, was time-consuming in its procedure and initiation. Emergency charter flights to transport critical patients from the islands to Malé are a crucial service in the Maldives, given the geographical dispersion of the islands and the need for rapid transport to centralised medical facilities in emergencies. 

President Mohamed Muizzu had earlier pledged to introduce air ambulance services starting March 1.

Critics alleged that the administration had refused to utilise aircraft provided by the Indian government—two navy helicopters and a Dornier aircraft.

However, the government said that following the recent revision of the policy on emergency medical transports, the state carrier Maldivian has successfully conducted three medical transport flights within the past 24 hours. Among the patients transported to Malé for advanced treatment was an individual from Fuvahmulah City who had been severely injured in a road accident and was on ventilator support.

(This story was published in Counterpoint on January 22, 2024)

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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