Maldives has got distinction of being the world's most isolated nation with an area of just 298 square kms and a population of about 5.57 lakh but it has got Geo-Political potential to needle even big countries like India and China. Interestingly, the poll campaign of aspirants of major political parties for the post of president veered around the slogans of Pro China and ‘India Out’ slogans thereby lending credibility to upsetting the current equations which may have direct fallout in Asia.
The defeat of pro-India incumbent, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and victory of Mohamed Muizzu, a civil engineer from London and the mayor of the capital, Malé City is being interpreted as a big setback to India which had developed good relations with outgoing president. Ex diplomats feel that India will have to embark upon and adapt to the metamorphosis in the existing foreign policy thereby giving weightage to external circumstances to work with the new regime in Maldives.
India-Maldives Ties May Be Hit Under New Regime
The outcome of the presidential poll is bound to have bearing on future dynamics of the region as Muizzu ran his campaign on the theme of Pro China and India Out rhetoric hence India cannot expect the continuation of present warm ties between two countries. India has expanded trade with Maldives and undertaken several projects since 2108 when Solih took over as head of the nation which had marked an end of the Pro-Beijing template of Abdulla Ameen who is languishing in jail for his indulgence in corruption. Muizzu’s party, People’s Nation Congress is viewed as “Heavily Pro China” which has promised to ensure the withdrawal of military troop from country’s soil and balance trade which tilted in favor of India .The Maldives is a cluster of 1200 islands in the Indian ocean comprising of the main shipping route between east and the west. Muizzu had focused on “India Out '' campaign and promised to send back small Indian military personnel and surveillance military aircraft which will open up the space for Chinese presence.
2nd, India’s total exports to Maldives exceeded USD 476.75 Million during 2022-23 which is bound to be affected in future under the new regime. India had committed USD 1.4 billion when Solih took over in 2018 but Muizzu may give priority to Chinese debt policy which has already destroyed the economy of several poor nations like Pakistan as they failed to repay heavy loans installments as well as the principal amount.
3rd, China’s enhanced footprint will get strengthened after an addition of Pear (Maldives) in China’s String of Pearls. (The term ‘String of Pearls’ denotes those areas where China is developing its bases, termed ‘pearls’. ‘Each pearl’ in the string is a junction signifying Chinese geopolitical influence or military existence which spreads from Hainan Island, Chinese province to Gwadar.)
Maldives has been using the China card to bargain with India but the new president may permit direct involvement of Dragon to give a new dimension to Sino-India relations.
4th, an agreement relating to Maldives-India defence cooperation to monitor Chinese maritime and naval movements along vital sea lane communication along the side of Maldives may be in jeopardy as Dragon would like to sabotage it under Muizzi.
5th, Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) will face an uncertain future but they are of utmost importance and critical for India for maritime trade flow between the Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Hormuz in West Asia and the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia. Experts say that 50% of India’s trade and 80% of its energy imports transit these SLOCs in the Arabian Sea.
Final, India accounts for 23 % of the tourist source market of Maldives which may be affected if Muizzi opts to have strained relations and heavily tilts towards China. Maldives’ 74% GDP depends upon the resources generated from the tourism industry hence it needs to protect it from India-China rivalry.
Agreements Signed Between China And Maldives May Get Fillip
Five agreements were signed during the visit of the Chinese foreign minister to Maldives in January ,2022 which will get a boost as Muizzi will give top priority to implement them. China may accelerate the process to execute these agreements which include mutual visa exemption between two nations and Maldivians being permitted to travel on a 30-day vis free basis, economic and technical cooperation, development in key areas like social, livelihood and infrastructure projects. Male owes USD 1.4 billion from past loans from China which may be restructured to ease off the pressure on the country's fragile economy.
United States May Be Irked If Maldives Nakedly Follows Pro China Policies
America had recognized Maldives after it attained independence in 1966 and process of strengthening of ties continues till date but there may be shift in US policy if Dragon dominates the foreign policy of Maldives.US foreign assistance resources committed $3 million to support the expansion of social protection services led by civil society organizations and a total of $10.8 million assistance was provided in foreign military financing sector under Bay of Bengal initiative which may be hit hard if Muizzi permits China to dictate his foreign policy?
Analysts opine that Maldives has graduated from the status of Least Developed Nation (LDC)in 2011 only hence new president should try to follow the principle of ‘Equidistance’ diplomacy unlike his predecessor to extract the financial advantages from India and China which will be in the interest of people of his country. At the same time, India will have to tread cautiously to establish better diplomatic ties with Muizz’s regime though it will be heavily tilted in favor of China which cannot be allowed to have a free run to create imbalance in the region.
(Writer is political analyst who is having six year experience of foreign posting covering the events for a premier English daily in a neighbouring country)