Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, the mayor of the capital Male, won the Maldivian Presidential election on September 30, 2023 after a second run-off against the incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. This was a significant development in the background of ongoing Sino-Indian geo-political competition to exert influence in strategically located Maldives. Solih who was first elected president in 2018 was battling accusations by Muizzu that he had allowed India an unrestricted presence in the country. Muizzu promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops from the Maldives.
Moreover, he vowed to balance the country’s trade relations which he claimed were heavily in India’s favor. In an exclusive interview with BBC, the president-elect reiterated that “We don’t want any foreign military boots on Maldivian soil … I promised this to the people of the Maldives and I will live up to my promise from day one.”This development was seen as a setback to Indian interests, if its troops are forced to leave. Additionally, his presidential victory was portrayed as win for pro-China camp. However, he denied this by saying “I am a pro-Maldives person. For me, Maldives comes first, our independence comes first … I am not pro or against any country.” The Progressive alliance (a coalition of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)) that backed Muizzu favors close ties with China and in the past depicted Mr. Solih’s “India-first policy” as a threat to Maldives security and Sovereignty. Muizzu himself has praised Chinese infrastructure projects and investments in the past. These all collectively gave the impression that he is not anti-China.
This electoral outcome is not just a domestic matter but is embedded within the complex geopolitical competition between India & China. The surprise victory of Muizzu, from the Progressive Alliance sent ripples across the South Asia, notably impacting India’s self-perceived role as a regional security provider. Besides this, the US indirect support of India’s regional ambitions and efforts to restrict China’s rising influence also faced a setback with this result. Moreover, if we look at the larger canvas of global power competition, the Maldives owing to its strategic location has emerged as a vital player.
It is a place where major great powers cast their gaze. They are striving to secure greater influence and trying to undermine their rivals by offering incentives. China, the regional influencer is increasing its footprint in the island nation to counter Indian dominance while also advancing its global military goals. Chinese side exerts its influence through diplomatic engagement and economic aid. Apart from that, China considers the Maldives a key component in its efforts to strengthen its maritime interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) while also aiming to maintain regional peace and stability.
Furthermore, it is important to highlight that the pro-China inclination in Maldivian foreign policy initially took place during the presidency of Abdullah Yameen, spanning from 2013 to 2018. During this time period, China had increased its economic assistance, established direct flights, signed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2017, and signed certain military assistance agreements. In addition to that, both states collaborated in most significant areas like Climate change and tourism. Both of these domains were integral in shaping Maldivian foreign policy and diplomatic relations. The above mentioned developments shows the significance of the Maldives within China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, an exemplary model of interaction between large and small states, and China’s multi-faceted strategy to strengthen its interests within the nation.
Many analysts alleged that historically, the Maldives adhered to an “India-first” policy. This signified seeking the approval of India, before making certain decisions. However, the warm relations that India and the Maldives had maintained and nurtured over the decades suffered a setback during Yameen’s presidency. The 2018 elections proved to be a turning point; Solih a pro-India candidate came to power and vowed to rebuild strong relations with India. Both India and Maldives have worked to align their respective policies, with India’s “Neighborhood First” approach under Modi government and Maldives “India First” approach uniting under the broader framework of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). However, it appears that president-elect Muizzu is not in favor of “India First” foreign policy. His campaign prominently featured the slogan “India Out”.
The presence of Indian military personnel in the Maldives is the main issue and the opposition side used it to criticize the government. This issue also highlight that Maldivians are cautious about external involvement. New-Delhi as part of its effort to strengthen defense cooperation had provided two Dhruv helicopters and a Dornier aircraft to Maldives to help with sea surveillance and medical evacuations. Moreover, it had given a fast patrol vessel along with a landing craft assault ship to the Maldivian National Defense Forces (MNDF). In addition to that, there were around 75 Indian military personnel in Maldives to assist the MNDF in maintaining and operating these aircraft. This in fact led to the opposition parties coming out with the “India Out” campaign.
While 75 troops might seem small, it holds significance as the small nation prefers not to host any foreign troops. Recently, Muizzu told Reuters in an online interview that “The focus is not on the actual number of military personnel here, it is on not having any at all in the Maldives. We will discuss with the Indian government and find out a way forward for this”. The statement from the President-elect strongly indicates that the days for Indian troops stationed in the Maldives are limited. On the other hand, if Muizzu succeeds in this attempt, it will be a victory for the “India Out” campaign. Moreover, the Chinese side will likely try to lure the Maldives by offering economic incentives and developmental opportunities to bring the South Asian nation into its sphere of influence.