By P.K.Balachandran/Sunday Observer
Colombo, October 8: The Maldivian President-elect, Dr.Mohamed Muizzu, who is generally branded as pro-China, has indicated that he will follow a balanced policy on India and China, without close identification with any of the two to the exclusion of the other.
Muizzu’s election campaign speeches showed that he had learnt a lesson from the defeats of his predecessors, Ibrahim Solih in 2023, and Abdulla Yameen in 2018. These defeats were attributed to their very close proximity to one of the two powers, thereby alienating the other. If Solih identified himself too much with India in the public perception, Yameen identified himself overly with China. These defeats indicated that the people of the Maldives did not like sharp angularities and preferred moderation.
Aware of this, Muizzu portrayed himself as a different kettle of fish. He kept saying in his speeches that he would steer clear of geopolitical blocs and work with all foreign powers, but always taking care not to compromise the Maldives’ independence and sovereignty.
However, since he was backed by former President Yameen in the election, and was a member of Yameen’s party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), Muizzu avoided criticizing Yameen’s pro-China policies. But he distanced himself from Yameen by repeatedly stating that he would be non-aligned in foreign affairs.
He did criticize India, but never directly. He never named India. In his daily diatribe against the Solih government, he would only say that the decisions of the Solih government were taken “by a foreign power” or a “neighbouring country.”
So opposed was Muizzu to foreign involvement in the Maldives that he said that “the protection of the country’s independence should get priority over development projects.”
He alluded to the controversy over the stationing of Indian military helicopters and their crew in the Maldives and assured his voters that foreign military personnel would not be allowed to remain in the Maldives under his watch.
India has two military helicopters with a 75-member crew in the Maldives according to Al Jazeera. They are stationed ostensibly to evacuate the sick from distant islands in the archipelago. However, many Maldivians see the objective as espionage rather than emergency medical aid. The Yameen government had tried to get the Indian personnel to pack up and go, but the Indians would not budge.
President Yameen then started the “India Out” movement, that, at times, had threatening overtones. India vehemently protested, but to no avail.
However, despite the nationalistic “India Out” movement, Yameen lost the people’s support eventually because of some of his other unsavoury attributes, like unbridled corruption and a dictatorial tendency.
After Yameen lost the 2018 Presidential election, his pro-India successor, Ibrahim Solih, renewed the helicopter deal with India. This revived the “India Out” campaign to his disadvantage in the 2023 election.
At any rate, by 2023, the Solih government had become unpopular due to non-performance on multiple fronts despite the existence of massive India-funded development schemes.
Aware of this, Muizzu said that his policy will be based on “fostering strong and balanced relationships with friendly nations while preserving the Maldives’ interests.” He expressed his commitment to avoiding discrimination against any nation, be it China or India. There would be “clear boundaries for diplomatic ties” to avoid over-doing, he said.
“We will not praise one country too much nor distance ourselves excessively from it,” Muizzu said.
On its part, New Delhi has to work out a mutually convenient and accommodative relationship with the Muizzu regime, which is to assume office formally on November 11.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already held out his hand of friendship. On Sunday, Modi said on X: “India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.”
The stakes in the Maldives are very high for both India and China. Therefore, both will compete fiercely for the Maldivians’ hand. According to Foreign Policy Chinese infrastructure projects account for 70% of the total Maldivian debt that involves an annual payment of US$ 92 million or 10% of the annual budget. According to Gateway House the three largest Chinese projects are together worth US$ 1.5 billion – more than 40% of the Maldivian GDP.
Indian investments in the Maldives have also been heavy. Eighteen community development projects with a cash grant of INR 50 crore (US$ 6 million) were completed in 2019. High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) with a grant of MVR 85 million (US$ 5.5 million) were enlarged in 2021 with an allocation of MVR 155 million (US$ 10 million).
In January 2023, an MOU for an additional grant of MVR 100 million (US$ 6.5 million) for the HICDP scheme was signed. Ten more HICDPs were signed subsequently. With this, there were 38 HICDPs of which 7 had been completed.
In 2021, India extended US$ 227 million for a project to construct 4000 houses in Huluhumale. Earlier, the EXIM Bank had given US$ 53 million in Buyers’ Credit for the development of roads in Hulhumale. In 2019, India undertook to support the restoration of the Friday Mosque in Malé with a grant of INR 8.95 crores (US$ 5.8 million). The National College for Policing and Law Enforcement got an Indian grant of INR 222.98 Crore (US$ 145 million).
Infrastructure & Connectivity Projects were announced with a credit line of US$ 800 million. Later, a US$ 100 million supplementary Line of Credit was announced.
In August 2022 Water and sanitation projects covering 34 Islands were announced. The Addu Development Project (comprising roads and land reclamation) to make Addu the southern regional hub of the Maldives, was launched.
Another important project was the Gulhifalhu Port project to relocate the congested Male Commercial Harbour. There are also Indian aided airport redevelopment projects in Hanimaadhoo and Gan.
But the most ambitious Indian project is the Greater Male Connectivity scheme to connect the capital Male to Villingili, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi islands. It is funded with a US$ 400 million credit and a US$ 100 million grant from India.
In 2021, India released a US$ 50 million Line of Credit for defence procurements. In 2022 a Buyers Credit of US$ 41 million was extended to develop police infrastructure in the country.
Sadly, this humongous effort on the part of India did not see President Solih through in the September 30 election. This was because his regime had not done its part. His economic and administrative performance was not up to the mark. Desperate eleventh-hour announcements of new projects and giveaways proved came unstuck.
A much better performance is expected from President Muizzu as he is a technocrat with a PhD in Civil Engineering from Leeds University in the UK. He had made a name for himself as Housing Minister in Yameen cabinet and also as the Mayor of Male. He had supervised key construction projects including the Seenimale bridge. He should, therefore, execute India-funded projects better.
But that presupposes the continuation of good relations with India, currently bedevilled by issues like the “India Out” campaign.
Worried about its security in the Indian Ocean threatened by increasing Chinese activity, India refused to take the military choppers and their crew back. But the Maldivians wanted them out for fear of getting drawn into a Sino-Indian conflict.
A former Maldivian ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed was quoted by the Maldives Journal as saying that India had demanded that no country other than India should have any right to use the Uthuru Thila Falhu dockyard. The Yameen administration did not agree. If the allegation is true, it has to be sorted out.
The controversial issues will have to be tackled by New Delhi and Male in a mutually accommodative manner to make the relationship a sustainable one. On its part, the Maldives cannot be oblivious to India’s geostrategic compulsions. Nor can it be oblivious to its own geographic proximity to India and the very close people-to-people ties with it.