Different strokes for different folks
by R Hariharan on 23 Dec 2023 0 Comment

Under its new president, Mohamed Muizzu, Maldives’ foreign policy priorities have changed. His various travels ever since he was elected is evidence of that. On December 6, he ensured Maldives skipped the 6th Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) meeting of National Security Advisers (NSA) of India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius held in Port Louis. This was in direct contrast to last year when Maldives - a founder-member of the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral framework for maritime security - had hosted the 5th edition of the meeting at which it was agreed to expand CSC by including Mauritius. Bangladesh and Seychelles attended the meeting as observers.


The CSC was specifically conceived to protect the maritime interests of the member countries, particularly their Exclusive Economic Zone in the southern Arabian Sea. Cooperation under the CSC includes the area’s maritime safety and security, countering terrorism, combating trafficking and organised crime, cyber security and protection of critical infrastructure and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Ships and aircraft of the Indian Navy, Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) jointly train and operate to fulfil the CSC mandate.


Maldives has been the biggest beneficiary of the CSC security framework as it has helped MNDF in training, planning and conduct of its security operations. President Muizzu is probably astute enough to understand that Maldives cannot afford to give up its participation in the CSC. So we can expect Muizzu to evolve a face-saving formula during “discussions” with India on the subject.


President Muizzu probably wanted to play down the importance of the India-centric CSC as it suits his current political idiom of distancing Maldives’ association with India. Ever since Muizzu came to power, he has repeatedly said that he wants to distance the country from the cheek-by-jowl relationship with India crafted by his predecessor President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Of course, this was not unexpected as Muizzu’s electioneering theme was “getting the foreign troops out”, a euphemism for the presence of Indian troops in Maldives.


Muizzu preferred to travel to Turkey, an extra-regional power, instead of India - the preferred choice of earlier presidents. This was perhaps to show he was not under Indian influence. Though he called upon Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of COP-28 to request him to withdraw Indian “troops” from Maldives. It was a repeat of the formal request he made to Union Minister Kiren Rijiju when the latter called on the President a day after the swearing-in. The President hoped that India would “honour the democratic will of the people”. He also brought up “the issue of Indian military personnel present in the Maldives for operating aircraft for medical evacuation and counter drug trafficking purposes”.


The Indian “troops” the President referred to are 77 IAF maintenance and flight crew stationed in the Maldives to operate Dornier surveillance aircraft and two Dhruv casualty evacuation helicopters, gifted by India. They were operating under the guidance of the MNDF. The fact that the Indian crew helped evacuate over 500 patients since the induction of the aircraft is a matter of detail that would not have escaped the notice of the astute President.


In a bid to further reinforce his “hands off” message to India, the President sent Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef to attend the China-sponsored 2nd meeting of the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation (CIORF), held at Kunming in Yunnan province on December 7-8. This contrasts with President Solih who chose to skip the first meeting of the CIORF organized as part of the 6th China South Asia Expo at Kunming in November 2022.


The CIORF is organised by the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) to expand the country’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to counter, not only the CSC, but also PM Modi’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative to promote maritime cooperation and development in IOR. Probably, the Indian Navy’s biennial Indian Ocean Naval Symposium meetings meant to help improve naval cooperation in IOR was also factored in China’s IOR narrative.


Luo Zhaohui, head of CIDCA and former ambassador to India, while speaking at the meeting, said that pushing forward Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Road (MSR) was one of the three reasons for organising the conclave. Promotion of BRI in the IOR has become urgent for China as all the three big debtors of BRI - Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives - are located there.


Vice President Latheef, addressing the CIORF meeting, said China has been crucial to Maldives’ development and highlighted the two countries’ “solid shared commitment to a people-centric strategy” to promote social development, peace and prosperity. He said President Muizzu and his administration are dedicated to fortifying long-standing relations between China and Maldives. He expressed eagerness to explore novel avenues of collaboration and cooperation with China, fostering a dynamic partnership bringing tangible benefits to both nations.


Though Latheef made no reference to BRI in his speech, China is likely to ginger up its BRI projects in Maldives as it is located close to India, astride the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. When President Xi visited Maldives in 2014, then President Abdulla Yameen (a political ally of Muizzu till recently) formally joined the BRI. During Yameen’s tenure till 2018, China executed a number of infrastructure and investment projects. The Male-Hulhumale bridge, costing $210 million, was constructed by China Harbour Engineering Company. Beijing Urban Construction Group completed the Male International Airport expansion project at Hulhumale in 2018. Yameen also signed a free trade pact with China. This has been a cause of concern to the Maldives trading community and Muizzu can be expected to take the FTA issue with the Chinese in the future.


Maldives is the smallest country in Asia with less than half a million population living in 26 atolls spread over 90,000 sq km with a land mass of 298 sq km only. Its land mass is barely a foot above sea level, making it highly vulnerable to nature’s fury and climate change. This makes its survival as a nation dependent not only on the vagaries of nature, but also upon international goodwill, particularly its nearest neighbour, India. Ever since the Maldives gained independence on July 26, 1965, India has emerged as its biggest partner in trade and tourism industry. Everyday needs of Maldivians, whether it is rice, potato, onion or cereals or construction material (including river sand, a rarity in Maldives) is sourced from India. Indian teachers, doctors and healthcare workers are serving the people in every atoll.


Last, but not least, India has also been the traditional guarantor of Maldives security. India has responded in real time on three occasions when Maldives faced crisis situations. Indian para-commando forces carried out Operation Cactus in 1988 to crush an attempted coup by mercenaries to dethrone the government. In 2004, India responded generously within hours when a tsunami struck and devastated the country. Similarly, when Male was hit by fresh water shortage in 2012, Indian naval ships reached Maldives within hours to provide relief to thirsty citizens. On all three occasions, India withdrew its forces from Maldives when its tasks were completed.


Even former President Yameen, despite his pro-China stance, had probably understood this unique feature of India’s “hands off” Maldives policy. Yameen signed the Indo-Maldivian Action Plan for Defence during a visit to New Delhi. Under the agreement, India was to install 26 radars to link up all the atolls with the Indian coastal command. Indian Navy and MNDF carry out joint surveillance and patrolling as well as joint exercises. India has funded the Uthuru Thila Falhu island site for a new harbour for the Maldivian Coast Guard which came under Muizzu’s rhetoric of foreign interference. India is also involved in a number of major infrastructure projects like the Greater Male Connectivity project, cargo vessel services and capacity building and training of MNDF and Maldivian civil servants and the Gulhifalhu Port Project.


Lastly, President Muizzu has internal political compulsions peculiar to the country, a late entrant to multi-party rule. Its democratic constitution was ratified only in August 2008. Political leaders are mostly related to each other and cronyism is the rule rather than exception in politics.


Muizzu, the politician, is cutting loose from his mentor and now disgraced former president Yameen, probably to carve out his own constituency in the corruption-ridden, loyalty-less and inbred party politics. These find their echo in political polemics in Maldives politics. In this environment, China has been carefully cultivating sections of the Maldivian polity, eating into India’s traditional benevolent big brother role. As a result, Maldives politics has become the scene of China’s muscle flexing, which uses local leaders as proxies to whip up anti-India rhetoric, particularly during elections. This suits fractious politicians who thrive in unsettled party politics of Maldives. President Muizzu’s actions and utterances are to be understood against this political backdrop.


There are external factors too. Muizzu will also have to deal with the US with which Maldives had signed the “Framework for US Dept of Defense-Maldives Ministry of Defense and Security Relationship” in September 2020. Under this, the US helps Maldives to strengthen democratic institutions, civil society, fiscal transparency, maritime security, counter terrorism and law enforcement. The US has also provided $36 million since September 2018 in bilateral foreign assistance for maritime security.


These are strategically awkward times in the Indian Ocean region. The never-ending Ukraine-Russia war has dislocated global supply chains. The more recent Israel operation in Gaza against Hamas terrorists is becoming a genocidal war. It threatens to damage US influence in the Middle East. Amid all this, China is flexing its military muscle to aggressively assert its claims in the South China Sea and Taiwan. These developments are impacting not only Europe and the Middle East, but also the Indo-Pacific theatre, including the Indian Ocean region. This could lead to the creation of new power blocs and alignments. Big powers jockeying for power in the Maldives neighbourhood is likely to make it difficult for President Muizzu to execute his agenda.


To sum up, President Muizzu seems to be trying to evolve his own narrative in the island nation’s internal and external problems. These include cutting down the overwhelming influence of the giant neighbour India, while wooing China. During his visits to Turkey and the UAE, he tried to cultivate Islamic countries and motivate expatriate Maldivians to promote their culture-specific linguistic nationalism and Islamic identity. 


So, President Muizzu is adopting different strokes for different folks. But his success is directly related to not merely how he manages India, but how India responds to his moves. Indian foreign policy has become dynamic and we can expect it to show a lot of patience and understanding in its dealings with the Maldivian president.


Winston Lord, Henry Kissinger’s aide, in his eulogy in The Times said: “Diplomacy involves agonising choices and trade-offs, aligning values and national interests. One cannot allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.”


It is a useful quote for President Muizzu when he confronts his problems not only externally, but internally as well. In the island nation, external and internal issues are two sides of the same coin.


The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Courtesy  India Legal, December 16, 2023


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