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C3S Overview: Maldives’ Revised India Policy—China a Factor?; Sruthi Sadhasivam

Updated: Jan 15


Image Courtesy: Deccan Herald


Article: 01/2024


The article seeks to provide a background to the series of events that amplified the tensions between India and Maldives and intends to assess the influence of China in the Maldives-India relations. The India out campaign, reviewing and cancellation of agreements with India, India-Maldives tourism row, Maldives president’s visit to China and statements made during the visit– all of these seem to indicate a shift in relations between India and Maldives.

Post the China visit, Maldives president releasing statements such as Maldives is not in the backyard of any state and that they would wish to reduce their dependence on food items from one state does indicate a sense of anti-India if not for a pro-China attitude. However, it becomes pertinent to assess whether Maldives’ revised India policy is independent of China or not as Maldives has been simultaneously sidelining India on one hand and visibly fast tracking its cooperation with China in strategic sectors on the other hand. In addition to this, China also has been affirming Maldives’ statements of strategic independence by saying it strongly opposes external interference in internal affairs of the archipelago. All these aspects make onlookers doubt China's hand in Maldives’ India policy.


Deployment of Anti-India Sentiments in the Maldives Polls


The European Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) to Maldives in its final report noted that the ruling coalition of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People's National Congress (PNC) used anti-India sentiments and sought to disseminate disinformation using the same sentiments during the 2023 presidential elections (European Union Election Observation Mission Maldives, 2024).


The European Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) was invited to observe the 2023 election campaign of Maldives for a period of 11 weeks. Upon observation, they claimed that the campaign run by the PPM-PNC coalition was “based on fears of Indian influences on the nation” with a special reference to stationing of Indian military personnel in the region (The Hindu, 2024).


Indian Prime Minister Modi’s Lakshadweep Visit & Maldivian Representatives’ Commentate  


Ms. Malsha Shareef, Ms. Maryam Shiuna and Mr. Mahzoom Majid, Deputy Ministers in the Maldives’ Ministry of Youth Affairs had passed disparaging comments to Mr. Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep to promote the latter as a top tourist destination (Hindustan Times, 2024). 


Abdulla Mahzoom Majid, part of Maldives’ Arts Ministry said, “While I wish success for India's tourism, targeting the Maldives so explicitly isn't diplomatic. India faces significant challenges competing in beach tourism, considering our resort infrastructure exceeds their total islands” (Hindustan Times, 2024).


In the wake of Modi’s Lakshadweep visit, Ms. Maryam Shiuna, part of Maldives’ Information Ministry posted on X saying “What a clown. The puppet of Israel Mr Narendra diver with a life jacket #VisitMaldives” (Gupta, 2024). For her part, Ms. Malsha Shareef, part of Maldives’ Youth Employment Ministry shared Prime Minister Modi's Lakshadweep video on X with “derisive emojis” (Hindustan Times, 2024). 


Zahid Rameez, member of Progressive Party of Maldives Senate said, "The move is great. However, the idea of competing with us is delusional. How can they provide the service we offer? How can they be so clean? The permanent smell in the rooms will be the biggest downfall" (Abbas, 2024). 


The Maldivian government failed to issue an apology in the wake of the appalling incident.  The major actions taken by the Maldivian government include suspending the three deputy ministers and releasing a statement saying that the Maldivian government is distancing itself from those comments. In a statement, Maldives' foreign ministry said, “it was aware of derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals.” The government further claimed that “the opinions were personal and did not represent the views of the government of Maldives.” The Maldivian government claimed that it “believes that the freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that does not spread hatred, negativity, and hinders close relationships between the Maldives and its international partners” (News Services Division, All India Radio, 2024). 


Maldives President Visit to China


President Muizzu paid a state visit to China from January 8 to 12, 2024 where he held talks with China’s President Xi Jinping, Premier of the State Council, Li Qiang, and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Zhao Leji.


The Joint Press Communiqué between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Maldives noted the elevation of China-Maldives ties to that of comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership (Embassy of PRC in India, 2024). In the joint press communique, China firmly opposed external interference in the internal affairs of Maldives and the latter affirmed its support to China’s efforts in realizing national reunification of China (Embassy of PRC in India, 2024).  


It should be noted that the joint press communique was published in the website of the embassy of PRC in India and not in the website of the embassy of PRC in Maldives. 


During the visit, China and Maldives signed about 20 agreements in areas including “blue economy, digital economy, infrastructure development projects, disaster and risk mitigation, and news cooperation” (Meera Srinivasan, 2024). 


Factoring China in Maldives’ India Policy


Maldives' Pro-China attitude or an adoption of a revised India policy is becoming increasingly visible with its course of actions in recent days.


Official figures of Maldives’ tourism ministry indicate that 2,09,198 Indian tourists visited Maldives in 2023. At present, Indians occupy the apex position in tourists arrivals in Maldives. Technically, President Muizzu should have visited India and urged the latter to assist in boosting tourism in Maldives given that Indians top the tourist arrival charts in Maldives. However, since the new president assumed power in Maldives, his first visit was to Turkey and his second visit was to China. 


During his visit to China, Maldives president, Mohamed Muizzu requested China to enhance efforts to send a higher number of tourists to his country (Soni, 2024). Further,  in the Maldives Business Forum in Fujian province, President Muizzu addressed China as the nation’s “closest ally” (Soni, 2024). Most importantly, China and Maldives signed a whopping 50 million dollar project to advance “an integrated tourism zone in Maldives” (Soni, 2024).


In the aftermath of the tensions caused by Lakshadweep comments by Maldivian ministers, in a press conference in China, President Muizzu said "We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us" (Mohan, 2024). 


As part of the India out campaign, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, had officially requested the Indian government to withdraw its military personnel stationed in the island nation. President Muizzu said, "While we acknowledge the significant role of the two helicopters in providing numerous emergency medical evacuations, it is imperative to honour the democratic will of the people of Maldives" (Joshi, 2023). Despite acknowledging India’s role in emergency medical evacuations and having not faced any security threats due to India’s military presence, President Muizzu wanted the Indian military to withdraw from the archipelago. 


In 2019, Maldives and India signed an MOU for promoting cooperation in the hydrography field. As part of the same, India has been undertaking a hydrographic survey of the Maldivian territorial waters. Recently, by citing national security concerns, Maldives refused to renew the hydrographic survey agreement with the Indian Navy (Dikshit, 2023). 


Conclusion


The India out campaign, reviewing and cancellation of agreements with India, India-Maldives tourism row, Maldives president’s visit to China and statements made during the visit– all of these seem to indicate a shift in relations between India and Maldives. Whether Maldives’ revised India policy is independent of China or not can be more clearly assessed in the course of President Muizzu’s conduct towards India. 



References

Abbas, A. (2024, January 7). Maldivian leader mocks PM Modi's Lakshadweep visit, remarks spark row. India Today. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/prime-minister-narendra-modi-visit-maldives-minister-zahid-rameez-beach-tourism-2485345-2024-01-07


Dikshit, S. (2023, December 15). Maldives not to renew survey pact with India. Tribune India. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/india/maldives-not-to-renew-survey-pact-with-india-572064


Embassy of PRC in India. (2024, January 11). Joint Press Communiqué between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Maldives. Joint Press Communiqué between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Maldives. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from http://in.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zgxw/202401/t20240111_11221897.htm


European Union Election Observation Mission Maldives. (2024, January 9). Final Report - Presidential Election Maldives 2023. EEAS. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/2024/Final%20Report%20-%20EU%20EOM%20Maldives%202023%20-%209%20January%202024.pdf


Gupta, S. (2024, January 7). Maldives ex-president Mohamed Nasheed reacts to remarks against PM Modi: 'Appalling'. Hindustan Times. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/maldives-ex-president-mohamed-nasheed-reacts-to-remarks-against-pm-modi-appalling-101704613713807.html


The Hindu. (2024, January 10). Maldives ruling coalition deployed anti-India sentiments during 2023 presidential polls: EU report. The Hindu. Retrieved January 11, 2024, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/maldives-ruling-coalition-deployed-anti-india-sentiments-during-2023-presidential-polls-eu-report/article67726586.ece


The Hindu. (2024, January 10). Maldives ruling coalition deployed anti-India sentiments during 2023 presidential polls: EU report. The Hindu. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/maldives-ruling-coalition-deployed-anti-india-sentiments-during-2023-presidential-polls-eu-report/article67726586.ece


The Hindu. (2024, January 11). Maldives, China sign 20 agreements after Muizzu-Xi meeting amid diplomatic row with India. The Hindu. Retrieved January 11, 2024, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/maldives-china-sign-20-agreements-after-muizzu-xi-meeting-amid-diplomatic-row-with-india/article67728474.ece


Hindustan Times. (2024, January 7). HT's full coverage of Maldives row: PM Modi's tweet, ministers' remarks and more. Hindustan Times. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/maldives-india-controversy-pm-modi-lakshadweep-row-maldives-india-fight-news-mohamed-nasheed-mariyam-shiuna-101704618601158.html


Joshi, P. (2023, November 19). Maldives calls for Indian military withdrawal, what it means for ties with India. India Today. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/maldives-calls-for-indian-military-withdrawal-what-it-means-for-ties-with-india-2464865-2023-11-19


Khanduri, D. (2024, January 8). India Summons Maldives Envoy Amid Row Over Remarks Against Modi. Sputnik India. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://sputniknews.in/20240108/india-summons-maldives-envoy-amid-row-over-remarks-against-modi-6120114.html


Meera Srinivasan. (2024, January 11). Maldives, China agree to ‘elevate’ strategic cooperation. The Hindu. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/maldives-china-agree-to-elevate-strategic-cooperation/article67730447.ece


Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Maldives. (2024, January 4). Tourism Update 4 Jan 2024. Ministry of Tourism. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.tourism.gov.mv/dms/document/72910df2d64ca2cae2eddde7339c5fe1.pdf


Mohan, G. (2024, January 14). Amid diplomatic row, officials from India, Maldives meet in Male. India Today. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/india-maldives-row-indian-high-commission-officials-meet-ministry-of-foreign-affairs-2488486-2024-01-14


News Services Division, All India Radio. (2024). Maldives govt suspends three ministers over derogatory remarks against foreign leaders & high-ranking individuals. News On AIR. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://newsonair.gov.in/Main-News-Details.aspx?id=474735


Soni, M. (2024, January 10). Amid row with India, Maldives President tells China to 'send more tourists'. Hindustan Times. Retrieved January 14, 2024, from https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/india-maldives-controversy-maldives-lakshadweep-row-pm-modi-lakshadweep-photo-mohamed-muizzu-101704807026125.html




(Sruthi Sadhasivam is a Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). The views expressed does not reflect the views of C3S)


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