India-Maldives tensions | 5 flashpoints and what are India’s options?

India-Maldives tensions | 5 flashpoints and what are India’s options?

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss whether New Delhi should use quiet diplomacy or direct confrontation in India-Maldives ties

Not a week has gone by since November 2023, when Maldives elected a new President Mohammad Muizzu- pushing out the previous pro-India Ibu Solih, where there isn’t something that puts India-Maldives ties on edge-  

Here are 5 flashpoints: 

  1. Muizzu came to power on the back of the PPM’s India out campaign- and did nothing to dilute it- since coming to power he has repeatedly called for Indian troops- about 80-90 in all to pull out of the islands, where they work on humanitarian ops and aircraft maintenance- by March 15
  2.  For his swearing in ceremony- Muizzu invited PM Modi, but he declined, sending a junior minister instead. Muizzu then asked to visit India, but as New Delhi didn’t respond, proceeded to Turkey, UAE, and then for a big bilateral visit to China 
  3. Then came the big blow out on social media- after PM Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep was played up as a counter to Maldives for tourism- 3 Maldivian ministers attacked India, mocking PM Modi in particular on social media, that led to a Boycott Maldives campaign in India. The ministers were suspended, but the damage was done. In the past month, Maldives has received a record 100,000 tourists, but India has been surpassed by Italy, Russia and UK in terms of numbers 
  4. With China, Muizzu signed 20 agreements- making it clear he wants to diversify Maldive’s dependence on India- for HADR, Food imports, Health facilities, trade and an action plan for a China-Maldives Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership. Separately, he announced that he would expand health insurance coverage United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Thailand- India is by far the preferred destination. He also said medicines will be imported directly from manufacturers in Europe and the United States. 
  5. Muizzu has also cancelled a hydrography agreement with India signed in 2019, while saying it would allow a Chinese survey ship to make a port call in early February. Meanwhile he also met US IndoPacom commander in Male who presented Maldives equipment. In a strategic setback- Maldives skipped the Colombo Security Conclave- an initiative of NSAs of India, Maldives and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. On the backs of all of this comes the arrival of the Xiang Yang Hong 3 in the Indian Ocean- and while Male has said it is only making a port call, not conducting research, India would prefer the Sri Lankan approach, to have banned all such ships this year 

As tones got sharper, here’s what Muizzu said  :- “  “We may be small but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us” 

The MEA tried to calm matters publicly- emphasizing that talks are still on- PM Modi met Muizzu in December, EAM Jaishankar met FM Moosa in January, a high level contact group met in Male, and will meet again soon:

“ It is an ongoing process. As I told you, both sides held discussions on finding mutually workable solutions, so you must look at that, to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medvac services to the people of Maldives. And this is an ongoing discussion, so things will go forward or things will be discussed in the next meeting of the Core Group subsequently, soon. “

What can India do? 

  1. Walk away from the bully tag: Sovereignty doesn’t see size- India cannot be seen muscling a smaller country in the neighbourhood – it must act its size without seeming insecure
  2. Let Muizzu make his mistakes: he has already faced pushback from the opposition parties for his Anti-India stance, his coalition lost Mayoral elections in Male this month, and all eyes are on Majlis elections on March 17. In the meanwhile keep engagement going
  3. Find creative solutions for the India Out problem- India and Maldives could find a way to replace Indian troops with other civilian teams that will man the HADR and maintenance operations until ties are better.
  4. Watch China and the US closely- negotiate red lines to ring fence ties on certain issues- like strategic cooperation and infrastructure debt
  5. Guard against social media hijacking diplomacy 

WV Take: Neighbourhood ties need a different kind of nurturing- which sometimes may seem unfair to India despite the help it provides neighbours. While India can do little about ithe size differential, it can control impulses to be seen as the big bully in the neighbourhood seeking to teach its neighbours lessons. India must be an indispensable power, not one that plays favourites between domestic political parties – like in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and faces reverses each time there’s an election- Maldives – Nasheed, Yameen, Solih, Muizzu. Ultimately, it isn’t personal, nor can personalized diplomacy resolve it. 

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