January 18, 2024
📰 FEATURE STORY
Are India-Maldives relations permanently ruptured?
There’s no sphere that social media hasn’t touched in recent times. That includes international diplomacy. Countries, ministries, government agencies, and the officials who work there all have a large platform at their fingertips to say anything they want. That can work wonders in securing assistance for people and keeping the public informed. But it can also prove to be the basis of a diplomatic row.
That’s what happened when a few Maldivian ministers decided to post derogatory messages against Prime Minister Narendra Modi following his visit to Lakshadweep. Things escalated from there. President Mohamed Muizzu’s election already didn’t bode well for relations with India. It only went downhill from there. Is this just a bump in relations for both countries, or something permanent?
Island nations in Asia have their task cut out. They need to figure out the best way to advance their economic and national security interests in a region rife and ripe for geopolitical tensions. China, the US, and India are all big players here.
In the Maldives, under the previous government led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, there was a clear mission to align with India for economic and security benefits. The opposition, under former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, wanted the opposite – to protect the country’s sovereignty. He even plotted a comeback with the slogan “India Out” being part of his campaign.
For years, India has been the dominant power in the region. The Modi government’s Neighbour First Policy underscored that. President Solih was in favour of it. He spoke of India being a reliable ally through good times and bad. Maldives is also very dependent on maritime security with India and Sri Lanka. That continued despite China’s growing presence in the region. From 2013 to 2018, both countries signed deals for large infrastructure projects and a free trade agreement.
Maldives and India also share cultural and ethnic ties. Some Maldivians come from South India, and the Maldivian language, Dhivehi, supposedly has its origins in Sanskrit and Pali. During the pandemic, Maldives depended heavily on India for healthcare, including 1 lakh Covid vaccines shipped in January 2021.
Now, relations between both countries look quite different. For starters, Mohamed Muizzu’s election was something of a blow to India. He’s widely seen as pro-China. The current coalition government follows a pro-China policy and wants to minimise India’s influence domestically.
Then came the social media posts against Modi, where he was referred to as a clown and a terrorist by government officials. The Maldivian government sacked the ministers involved and condemned the comments, but things only escalated.
Anger on social media was followed by calls for boycotting Maldives. #BoycottMaldives began trending. Celebrities and politicians voiced their support. EaseMyTrip cancelled all bookings to the island nation. President Muizzu wasn’t done. After he returned from China, he asked India to withdraw its military personnel. This escalation begs the question, are relations between India and Maldives permanently damaged?
VIEW: Not looking good
On his recent visit to China, President Muizzu signed 20 agreements. While he’s still keen on India completing the Male-Thilafushi bridge linking Male with three other islands, he could change his mind about the Uthuru Thila Falhu port being constructed for the Maldives Coast Guard. The government’s pro-China stance has resulted in deals with China on many fronts, including the expansion of agriculture production. Muizzu wants to end its dependency on ‘one country’ for staples.
Muizzu has grand ambitions and plans for the Maldives. Among them are increasing GDP output to $12 billion through tourism, diversifying the economy and increasing investments. He understands the importance his country plays in the region economically and geopolitically and is placing a lot of stock in bolstering relations with China. That, coupled with the decision to not renew the agreement with India for joint hydrographic surveys, means it’s advantage China.
Competition in the Indian Ocean region is only going to heat up with China’s increasing presence and influence. The request to remove India’s military personnel is a blow to India’s maritime and geopolitical ambitions in the region. For relations with Maldives, as long as Muizzu is in power, even though the ferocity of his anti-India rhetoric is toned down in governance compared to his campaign, he’s unlikely to play favourites with India.
COUNTERVIEW: A short-term blip
There’s no doubt relations with the Maldives are shaky right now. But that isn’t likely to persist. While there might still be some bad blood, both countries will depend on each other. It’s mutually beneficial, so the countries are likely to keep things calm and maintain some sense of friendliness and normalcy. Historical ties going back to 1966 and India being one of the first to recognise Maldives’ independence from the British counts for a lot.
From India’s standpoint, it’s imperative to maintain relations with Maldives, even more so considering China’s growing influence. Maldives can’t give up on relations with India either. The majority of the country’s economy depends on tourists. Some estimates put India’s contribution to tourism to be about 11%. Any boycott campaign will severely affect the Maldivian economy, and that’s something it can’t afford to risk.
Despite the rhetoric, it seems behind the scenes, both countries will continue working together. India has committed to working with the Muizzu government. Maldives has a lot of debt, and Muizzu’s request for debt restructuring was met with positive affirmation from India. There’s also supposedly a joint committee to resolve issues between both countries. Both countries can’t afford to let things slip.
- The Maldives’ Tug of War Over India and National Security – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- From defence to health, how India has played Maldives’ perfect neighbour for decades – India Today
- India-Maldives row: Explaining the story so far – India Today
- Why Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu Is Talking Tough: Explainer – NDTV
- Spat between India and the Maldives: Way Forward? – Financial Express
- Why India, Maldives will remain on the same page despite deepening tensions – The Business Standard
What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) India-Maldives relations are permanently damaged.
b) India-Maldives relations aren’t permanently damaged.
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