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Maldives: a country at the crossroads

1 April 2024 08:18 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The idyllic island nation of the Maldives, famed for its turquoise waters and luxurious resorts, is making waves on the international stage. Following the election of Mohamed Muizzu as President in November 2023, the Maldives has embarked on a significant shift in its foreign policy, marking a departure from traditional alliances and embracing a more diversified and strategic approach to international relations. This new direction presents both challenges and opportunities for the island nation, thrusting it into a complex geopolitical environment.

President Muizzu's leadership is navigating a complex geopolitical environment. The Maldives seeks to lessen its reliance on a single dominant partner while forging new partnerships with a wider range of regional and international actors. This strategic shift presents both challenges and opportunities. The Maldives must navigate competing interests and employ delicate diplomacy as it carves out a new role for itself on the world stage.

The evolving political landscape in the Maldives underscores its growing importance as a strategic player in the Indian Ocean region. This dynamic environment has far-reaching implications, not just for the Maldives' immediate neighbors, but for the broader geopolitical landscape. As the Maldives charts its new course, the world watches with interest to see how its nuanced and dynamic engagement with global partners will shape its future.

India-Maldives ties under strain

India, a longstanding ally, finds its relationship with the Maldives undergoing a transformation. Muizzu, who came to power in November last year, had asserted he would ensure that the Maldives remain "free" of any "foreign military presence" to preserve its independence and sovereignty. Accordingly, in January this year he asked India to withdraw troops. An agreement was signed in February between the two nations in this regard.

India began withdrawing its personnel with the first batch of 25 soldiers on March 12, at the request of the Mohamed Muizzu government. The second group is expected to leave the country by April 10.

In addition, the Maldives declined a recent hydrographic survey deal proposed by India, emphasizing its desire for strategic autonomy in maritime affairs. These developments highlight a more assertive Maldives seeking to diversify its foreign policy options.

Tensions have also risen due to a public disagreement over the development of Indian islands in Lakshadweep, located near the Maldives. The Maldives views increased activity on these islands as a potential threat to its fishing industry and has voiced its concerns.

Strengthening ties and Defense Cooperation with Turkey

Following his election in September 2023, Turkey has emerged as a new player in the Maldives' diplomatic landscape. Muizzu's first official visit was to Turkey last November, where he toured several defense companies. Agreements struck during the visit, including a US$ 37-million deal to procure Turkish drones, bolster the Maldives' defense capabilities and pave the way for technological cooperation.

As part of the agreement, recently the Maldives government has introduced Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 drones into service while standing up a new Air Corps tasked with monitoring the island nation's maritime environs. Three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) were inaugurated in a ceremony at Maafaru International Airport in Noonu Atoll on March 15. That same evening, one of the drones conducted a maiden patrol from the base.

Military Pact and Maritime Engagement with China

Under the Muizzu government, China's engagement with the Maldives has also intensified. In China, Muizzu signed 20 agreements in the presence of President Xi Jinping in Beijing and more at Fujian, en route. Apart from the GSI, Maldives has joined China's Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI) and also revived the Belt and Road Initiative and Free Trade Agreement (FTA) from the Yameen era, both of which successor Solih had sidelined. Muizzu's ambitious China-funded projects also include an ambitious transhipment port and the expansion of the Malé International Airport, which was at the centre of the ‘GMR row’ with India in 2011-12.

The signing of a military pact signifies the Maldives' strategic diversification and its pursuit of security partnerships beyond traditional allies. The arrival of a Chinese survey ship in Maldivian waters, following Sri Lanka's ban on foreign research vessels, underscores China's growing maritime presence in the region and its deepening engagement with the Maldives in maritime exploration and research activities.

The Maldives' multifaceted foreign policy reflects its strategic position as a small island nation in a geopolitically competitive region. The evolving relationships with India, Turkey, and China underscore the Maldives' strategic agility and its growing role in shaping the geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean.

Debt Issue: Maldives seeks debt relief from India amid strained ties

The Maldives owed approximately $400.9 million to India at the end of last year. Amid strained ties with India, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu stated that he had no objections to India developing various projects across the Maldives. In his first interview with local media since assuming office, President Muizzu emphasized India's crucial role in providing aid to the Maldives and implementing a significant number of projects. "I also conveyed to Prime Minister Modi during our meeting that I did not intend to halt any ongoing projects. Instead, I expressed my desire to strengthen and expedite them," he said.

President Muizzu affirmed that India will remain the Maldives' "closest ally" without question.

In the midst of a diplomatic row with India, President Muizzu has requested debt relief measures from New Delhi. He clarified that he has not taken any actions or made statements that could strain the relationship between the two countries.

The Maldives has acquired substantial loans from India, surpassing the capacity of the Maldivian economy to bear. As a result, Muizzu is in ongoing discussions with the Indian government to explore repayment options that align with the Maldives' economic capabilities.

The President expressed optimism that India would assist in facilitating debt relief measures for the repayment of these loans. He also conveyed his gratitude to the Indian government for their contributions.

Upcoming Parliament Election and MDP's challenge

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), as the main opposition currently holding a majority in the Maldivian parliament, is anticipated to mount a formidable challenge in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for April 21.

President Muizzu recently declared April 21, along with the day following, as public holidays to coincide with the parliamentary elections. The elections were originally scheduled to be held on March 17 this year, but the opposition sought a deferment, citing Ramadan — from March 10, 2024 to April 9, 2024 — that practising Muslims observe as a month of prayer and fasting.

The Opposition, comprising the Maldivian Democratic Party and its breakaway faction The Democrats, holds the majority in the People’s Majlis or parliament. On February 11, its MPs voted to amend the General Elections Act to reschedule the polls. Initially, President Muizzu did not ratify the amendment, but after a fresh vote by the legislature on February 28, he ratified the Bill.

As the parliamentary elections approach, the MDP has intensified its criticism of Muizzu on various issues.

The MDP, the first political party established in the Republic of Maldives with a membership of 52,142 individuals as of March 5, 2024, made history in the 2019 parliamentary election by securing a majority without coalition support.

Former Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid assumed the presidency of the MDP uncontested, succeeding former MDP President Mohamed Nasheed who departed the party in June 2023.

Ahead of the election, MDP candidates contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections have pledged not to switch parties after winning seats.

The MDP's slogan for the parliamentary elections, "Misraabu Hama Magakah," loosely translates to "In the Right Direction."

In response to MDP's slogan, President Muizzu cautioned that if the opposition, specifically the Maldives Democratic Party, gains a parliamentary majority, the nation could face significant challenges, potentially worsening the country's direction. He emphasized the importance of electing representatives aligned with the government's policies and projects aimed at benefiting the people.

Challenges ahead

The Maldives, akin to Sri Lanka, faces significant economic challenges and is entangled in complex power dynamics on the global stage. As the country grapples with financial difficulties, President Muizzu is navigating a delicate balancing act, aiming to maximize benefits from various partners while mitigating the impact of economic woes and the impending election.

The Maldives, being a small island nation, confronts a daunting financial situation exacerbated by its involvement in broader power politics. Unlike larger nations with more diversified economies, the Maldives relies heavily on tourism and faces vulnerabilities in global economic shifts.

Recognizing the intricacies of the Maldives' position, President Muizzu has adopted a strategy focused on optimizing gains from all partners. This approach seeks to leverage relationships without aligning too closely with any single power, thus maintaining the country's autonomy in decision-making.

Despite Muizzu's efforts, significant challenges loom large on the horizon. Economic issues, including debt burdens and financial instability, pose immediate threats to the Maldives' stability and development. The upcoming election adds another layer of complexity, requiring adept navigation of domestic political landscapes alongside international relations.

The Maldives stands at a critical juncture, grappling with economic fragility and geopolitical pressures. President Muizzu's nuanced approach of balancing partnerships while addressing internal challenges will be pivotal in steering the country towards sustainable growth and stability amidst turbulent global dynamics.


















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