Signs of India's Neighbourhood First policy taking a knock became further evident on Monday when New Delhi summoned Maldivian envoy for suitable messaging followed by the Indian envoy to Maldives finding himself in the Maldivian foreign ministry for a “pre-arranged” meeting. By an uncanny coincidence all this happened the same day the newly elected Madlivian President Mohamed Muizzu arrived in China to establish the new strategic pecking order. Until now, New Delhi has been the first port of call for incoming presidents.
Not for Muizzu, who chose Turkey, a fact that the Chinese took delight in pointing out, via Global Times, in an editorial headlined “What does Maldivian President's break with tradition signify?”
The editorial, probably written before three junior ministers of the Maldivian government left New Delhi smarting with remarks that were at once provocative and worth noting, coming from the world's smallest Muslim majority nation, pointed out that for India, “Maldives, due to its strategic importance, has become a piece of meat in the struggle between China and India.”
According to the Maldive's Sun, Indian envoy “Munu Mahawar has been asked to come in for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry at 12:00 pm Monday...The move comes after Ibrahim Shaheeb, the Maldivian ambassador in New Delhi, was summoned by India’s External Affairs Ministry earlier on Monday.”
It was not clear by Monday evening if the Maldivian foreign Ministry went beyond their initial view that the remarks made by the three suspended junior ministers -Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid - were their “personal opinion” and did not reflect the views of the government. It was also not clear for how long they were to remain suspended, or whether New Delhi was pushing for a stronger expression of regret.
The Edition, a Maldivian media entity, noted that “One country summons the envoy of another country, to typically express dissatisfaction and opposition to various issues, and emphasize the seriousness of the country's views.”
Summoning envoys over tweets is not uncommon. Five years ago, Akhilesh Mishra was summoned by the Foreign Ministry over Subramanian Swamy's tweet that "India should invade Maldives if rigging of the presidential election takes place."In all probability, he would also have said that Swamy's views did not represent those of the government.
The fracas between the two countries puts in perspective the distance the small Indian Ocean nation has slid from India's strategic embrace through the years and slipped into Chinese arms. The Global Times in its editorial pointed out that New Delhi is seeing Maldives moving closer to other countries as a “betrayal”. This, the editorial said, “amounted to a lack of respect for Maldives.” In Beijing the Maldivian President stood poised to sign many agreements with Xi, deepening the Chinese influence in Maldives.
The outburst by the junior ministers is both a factor of domestic politics as well as the low point in bilateral relations between India and Maldives, a nation that has been a cause for concern.
The Australian Think Tank, the Lowy Institute, points out in a paper, that “From 2014 to 2018, more people departed the Maldivesto join the Islamic State than from any other country. In total, this figure is estimated at 250 men and women from a country of only 500,000. Most who went died.”
In a country where 95 per cent of wealth is concentrated in the hands of as few as five percent, the situation is ripe for the picking by interests that are inimical to New Delhi.
In August this year, the US imposed sanctions on 20 individuals and 29 companies for providing financial support to operations of ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorist groups in the Maldives.
The notion of the Neighbourhood First Policy came into being in 2008. It was conceived to bolster relations with certain priority countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all countries that have snuggled closer to China even as India looks far ahead towards the US, and Israel.
Says the Global Times editorial, “The Maldives, with its enchanting white sandy beaches and tranquil azure waters is the epitome of a tourist paradise in the minds of the Chinese people, never to be equated with the “battlefield” of competition among major powers. Apparently as many as 187,000 Chinese tourists visited Maldives last year. India seems to have done slightly better: According to the Maldives tourism ministry statistics, more than 2.09 lakh Indians visited the island nation in 2023. The question: what will the Modi effect be this year?