New Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu’s January 8-12 state visit to China is the culmination of his “India Out” campaign which catapulted him to power in the September elections. Notably, he is the first president of the archipelago, located barely 70 km from Minicoy in Lakshadweep, to travel to Beijing before going to New Delhi; all his predecessors made India their first overseas destination after taking the oath of office. Muizzu, however, first flew to Turkey after his coronation, then the United Arab Emirates, and is presently enjoying Chinese President Xi Jinping’s lavish hospitality in what is an outright snub to India.
Muizzu has so far shown no inclination of travelling to India. There are reports that New Delhi has extended an invitation, but he hasn’t said either “yes” or “no”, putting resident power India in an awkward position. By cold-bloodedly travelling to Beijing before going to New Delhi, he has sent out a very clear signal that he wants to be friends with China even if that means alienating India. Two of his predecessors, Mohammed Waheed and Abdulla Yameen, had serious reservations about India, but even they did not dare to break the tradition since 2008, when democratic elections were first held in Maldives, of making India the first foreign port of call.
That Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has thrown up its hands and doesn’t quite know what to do is evident from External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal’s reply when asked about Muizzu’s state visit to China. “It is up to them to decide where to go and how they go about their international relations,” he responded sheepishly. Besides admitting that the matter was out of India’s hands, Jaiswal added that he had no update on the removal of Indian military personnel from the islands, which Muizzu has been persistently demanding since the day election results were announced and he was declared the winner in the straight fight with Ibrahim Solih whose “India First” policy cost him the presidency.
New Delhi is maintaining a studied silence over Muizzu’s Beijing visit but Washington has indirectly articulated its concern over the China-Maldives axis by dialling Male even as Muizzu was packing his bags. No sooner did China announce Muizzu’s state visit on January 5, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken telephoned Maldivian Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer. A State Department statement said that Blinken reaffirmed US commitment to strengthening cooperation with Maldives for a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific region. When the US, which is thousands of kilometres away, is so concerned about Muizzu cosying up to Jinping that Blinken immediately rang up Zameer, one can well imagine New Delhi’s unarticulated worries and apprehensions over China gaining unfettered access to Maldives in India’s backyard.
Besides repeatedly asking India to take back military personnel and skipping the New Delhi-led Colombo Security Conclave last month, Muizzu has decided not to renew an agreement with India for joint hydrographic surveys in Maldivian waters. Abhijit Singh, Head of Maritime Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation, says without mincing his words that “since the election of Muizzu in November 2023, his actions seem directed at creating distance between Male and New Delhi. The Maldives would like the world to believe that terminating the hydrography pact is a way of asserting its autonomy and agency. It is not. Far from balancing ties with India, Male has thrown in its political lot with China. The Muizzu administration’s refusal to renew the hydrography pact seems less to do with sensitivities about sovereignty than with its special relationship with Beijing. Getting Indian hydrographic ships out of Maldivian waters appears intended to aid China’s marine surveys of the surrounding seas.”
Not surprisingly, Beijing has rolled out the red carpet for Muizzu and First Lady Sajidha Mohamed to sweep them off their feet. The dazzling reception Jinping has planned for the head of government of South Asia’s smallest democracy is certainly a golden lesson in diplomacy. The world’s second most powerful leader will hold a welcome ceremony and a banquet for Muizzu — whose country owes China about $1.3 billion according to the International Monetary Fund — and the two will hold formal talks and jointly sign cooperation documents. Besides Jinping, Chinese premier Li Qiang and Zhao Leji, chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, will also meet Muizzu, making it a truly unforgettable trip for the Maldivian President.
All this raises the inevitable question: what went wrong between tiny Maldives and “Big Brother” India? Why did Muizzu’s “India Out” campaign promising to erase India’s military, economic and political footprint get such a resounding endorsement from ordinary Maldivians? Why did “India Out” triumph over Solih’s “India First” approach?
According to Frontline magazine’s R K Radhakrishnan, it was Modi government’s attempt to force yoga down the throats of Maldivians, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, that “led to a series of events that culminated in India losing its toehold and China occupying that space”.
Radhakrishnan writes: “In June 2022, the Indian High Commission in Male, on instructions from the Ministry of External Affairs, decided to celebrate International Yoga Day in a massive way. No one in Delhi thought that a Yoga campaign in a 100 percent Muslim country would create a problem. Such was the lack of attention to detail when it came to dealing with India’s neighbourhood. On June 21, 2022, Reuters reported that ‘a crowd stormed a stadium’ where the event was on; the report also said that the ‘protestors brandished placards claiming that yoga was against the tenets of Islam’. The ‘success’ of this disruption laid the foundation for the [India Out] campaign for the 2023 election. It was also helped by the many incidents of Muslims being targeted in various states in India. Every single reported incident of an attack on Muslims in India was ammunition for propaganda in Maldives.”
The heading of the brilliant piece — How BJP’s yoga misadventures in Maldives paved the way for China to assert its dominance — says it all! And need I say, I agree.
The author is an independent, Pegasused reporter and commentator on foreign policy and domestic politics