Thursday, July 25, 2024

Maldives: Indian troops exit the country as China gains a foothold


  • Written by Anbarasan Ethirajan
  • BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

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Maldives President Mohamed Moizo came to power after a high-effort India Out campaign

India is set to withdraw the first batch of its military personnel from the Maldives on Sunday as the island nation moves closer to China.

The gradual withdrawal of about 80 Indian soldiers must meet a deadline set in May by President Mohamed Moiso, who is widely seen as pro-China.

India said that its military personnel are stationed in the Maldives to maintain and operate two rescue and reconnaissance helicopters and a small aircraft that it donated years ago. The withdrawal of Indian troops was an election promise made by Moiso, who took power in November.

India has long enjoyed influence over the Maldives, whose strategic location in its backyard has allowed it to monitor an important part of the Indian Ocean. But the relationship between the two countries has soured over the past few months, partly due to Moiso's strong rhetoric against Delhi. It's a gap China is looking to exploit as Asian powers jostle for influence in the region.

Even then, Delhi and Male (the capital of the Maldives) were able to agree that the Indian civilian technical crew would replace the military forces to operate the aircraft – and the first team has already arrived on the islands.

“The aircraft will remain in the Maldives and India [civilian] The staff will continue to be there to maintain it. “Both sides seem to have reached a compromise,” says Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign minister.

Some in the Maldives see the replacement of troops with civilians as a step back by Moizo after his “India Out” campaign.

Mr. Muizzu's office did not respond to requests for comment.

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Moizo had gone to China on a state visit in January

Some analysts warn that the Maldives, a country with a population of just over half a million, risks falling into the Asian power competition.

China has lent the Maldives more than $1 billion over the years, mostly to finance infrastructure and economic development.

Beijing and Mali upgraded their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership in January when Moiso went to China on a state visit – and has yet to visit India, unlike previous Maldives leaders.

Earlier this week, the Maldives government signed a “military aid” agreement with China, which raised some concern in Delhi.

The Maldivian Ministry of Defense said the agreement was “free” (without payment) without providing further details. But in his address to a public meeting on Tuesday, Moiso said China would provide non-lethal weapons for free as well as train Maldivian security forces (both India and the US have trained the Maldivian army so far).

“This is unprecedented. It is the first time the Maldives has signed a defense agreement with Beijing to provide military assistance,” Azim Zahir, a Maldivian political analyst, told the BBC.

“We knew that Mr. Mwezo would establish closer ties with China in terms of investment and capital, but no one expected him to go this far,” he said.

But Beijing denies the existence of any long-term military plans in the Maldives.

“It is a natural relationship between the two countries,” says Dr. Long Xingchun, head of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, a think tank. “If China wants to have a military presence in the Indian Ocean, it may have better options than the Maldives.”

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The Maldives depends on India for imports of basic foodstuffs, medicines and construction materials

Despite Beijing's assurances, many believe China is moving quickly to capitalize on this opportunity, as the previous government, led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, had followed an “India first” approach.

During his election campaign, Mwizo accused the previous administration of not disclosing the finer details of Mali's agreements with Delhi. He now faces similar criticism.

“We do not have any details of most of the agreements he signed during his visit to Beijing,” says Mr. Zahir. “Mr. Mwizo is no better than the previous government when it comes to revealing details of such agreements.”

Last month, the Moizou administration allowed a Chinese research ship, Xiangyanghong 3, to dock in Mali despite opposition from Delhi. Maley argued that it was a port call for “staff rotation and replenishment.”

But that did not convince some Indian experts who feared it could be important for collecting data that the Chinese military could later use in submarine operations.

Amid ongoing tensions in relations, Delhi has ordered the establishment of a new naval base in the Indian archipelago of Lakshadweep, near the Maldives.

The Indian Navy said that the INS Jatayu, stationed at Minicoy Island, will enhance its efforts in “anti-piracy and anti-narcotics operations in the Western Arabian Sea.”

While some read it as a message to Mali, Indian experts say the move is not a response to current tensions.

“I don't think this is new. As far as I know, this has been in the works for some time,” said Saran, the former Indian diplomat.

Moiso's anti-India movements also alarmed many in his country. The Maldives depends on India for imports of basic foodstuffs, medicines and construction materials. Post the Covid pandemic, India has also been sending the highest number of tourists to the Maldives.

But that changed after the recent controversy that led to Indians on social media calling for a “boycott” of the Maldives after some officials made controversial comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Controversy erupted while Moizu was in Beijing, and he asked Chinese authorities to start sending more tourists to reclaim the top spot the country held before the pandemic.

Since then, Chinese tourists have begun to visit in large numbers. According to data from the Ministry of Tourism, of the nearly 400,000 tourists who visited the Maldives in the first two months of the year, 13% of them were from China. India fell to fifth place.

Some also expect Mwizo's rhetoric to intensify as parliamentary elections scheduled for April 21 approach, and he aims to gain a majority in the House of Representatives.

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