No China, No India! Delhi Must Leave ‘Big Brother’ Approach; Male’s Policy Is Now ‘Country First’ – State Media

Mohammad Muizzu was the presidential candidate of the Progressive Congress — a coalition of his People’s National Congress (PNC) and the incarcerated former President Abdullah Yameen. He is now the President of the Maldives.

Yameen, who was voted out in 2018, had led the Maldives into a debt trap by awarding China’s state-owned companies lucrative contracts to build several infrastructure projects  — mostly on unsustainable loan terms — ignoring the security interests of India.

Though Beijing’s influence over Yameen’s regime had resulted in strains in New Delhi’s relations with Male, it saw a reset after Solih and former Maldivian President Mohammad Nasheed led the Maldives Democratic Party to victory in November 2018 elections.

India Out

Over the past few years, it was Yameen who led an “India Out “campaign because it helped him and Muizzu set the narrative against Solih’s ‘India First policy during the presidential campaign. 

On February 21, 2021, New Delhi signed an agreement with the Solih government to “develop, support and maintain a harbor at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in the island region.

File Image: India Out Campaign In Maldives

Though built for the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard, it is also seen as a strategic asset, giving Imia an edge over China, which has been trying to spread its tentacles in the Indian Ocean region.

The 2023 presidential elections saw the parties of Yameen and Muizzu campaigning that the naval facility the Solih Government allowed New Delhi to build would eventually be turned into India’s military base in the Maldives, thus undermining the sovereignty of the archipelago.

Solih and his party countered it, claiming that the naval facility would rather enhance the capability of the Defence Forces of the Maldives in exercising jurisdiction and undertaking maritime surveillance of its exclusive economic zone and the islands.

Yameen and Muizzu have been criticizing the Solih Government’s decision to keep the two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters New Delhi gifted to Malé in 2010 and 2015, although the erstwhile Abdullah Yameen’s regime was keen to return both the choppers. Last year, India also installed a coastal radar system, comprising 10 radar stations, in the Maldives to help keep watch in the Indian Ocean.

Not only had the defense cooperation between the two nations expanded over the past five years, but India had also announced, launched, and completed several infrastructure projects in the Maldives over the past few years to stop and reverse its drift toward China.

Enter China

President Muizzu, who is regarded as pro-China, skipped a visit to India and landed in China, unlike his predecessors. The visit comes amid a row with India, wherein three ministers made derogatory remarks on Prime Minister Modi for his Lakshadweep visit and tweet inviting visitors to the island.

On January 7, China’s state media, Global Times, mentioned Muizzu’s visit referred to India’s row with Maldives and called for an “open-minded” approach to looking at South Asian issues. The sarcasm in the remark is noticeable.

The editorial of the Global Times says China has always treated the Maldives as an equal partner and respected its sovereignty. This is an indirect indictment of India’s so-called ‘big brotherly’ treatment towards Maldives or putting in diplomatic language India’s interference in the internal affairs of Maldives.

Curiously, the editorial writes, “China also respects the friendly and cooperative relationship between the Maldives and India, fully aware of the importance for Male to maintain good relations with New Delhi. Beijing has never asked Male to reject New Delhi because of the conflicts between China and India, nor does it view cooperation between the Maldives and India as unfriendly or a threat.”

It further said that China is willing to carry out trilateral cooperation between China, India, and the Maldives. It advised New Delhi to stay more open-minded, as China’s cooperation with South Asian countries is not a zero-some game.

Lin Minwang, deputy director at Fudan University, told the Global Times, “Muizzu’s foreign policy is shifting not from ‘India first’ to ‘China first’, but to ‘Maldives first’.”

The somewhat soft tone in which the official organ of China has spoken about India-Maldives relations can be owing to two reasons.

The first is that the Maldives is faced with an unstable domestic political scenario. China knows that there is a strong pro-India element in the Maldives, which Muizzu has to take into account. It should be noted that the former leadership of the Maldives, which has lost power to the sitting regime, did not mince words that indirectly accuse Muizzu of straining relations with India, whose friendship has been valued by responsible Maldivian traditional leadership.

The second reason is that Muizzu had to yield to the home pressure group resulting in the suspension of three of his deputy ministers who are alleged to have used derogatory language against the Indian prime minister. (There is some controversy about whether any order to that effect has been formally issued or not.)

We do not think that the tourism competition is a reason for Maldivian ministers to get foul-mouthed. It has to be noted that one of the three suspended ministers using derogatory remarks had used “clown” and “puppet of Israel” for the prime minister.

It is nothing surprising because the party with which the Muizzu government is in coalition is a known Islamist party. The words of the minister reflect the anti-Israel mindset.

It is true that soon after taking the oath of office, Muizzu repeated the demand that India withdraw her armed personnel from Maldives. Muizzu had broached the subject on December 1 when he first met Modi in Dubai while attending the COP28 summit.

Muizzu said Modi had agreed to withdraw the small number of Indian troops and also discussed how the two helicopters gifted to Maldives by India would operate in disaster relief and humanitarian services. Therefore, this, too, cannot be the real reason for Maldives to strain relations with India.

The Crux Of The Issue

Both India and China are seeking to influence the politics of the Maldives. India would like to maintain its grip in South Asia, in line with PM Modi’s” neighborhood first” foreign policy slogan, and to prevent China from building an alleged “string of pearls” or naval bases surrounding the Indian littoral.

China, meanwhile, wants to continue its steady expansion into the Indian Ocean and advance its BRI and MSR aspirations.

In November 1980, India had, at the request of then President Maumoon Qayoom, thwarted a coup attempt launched by an invading force of the Peoples’ Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam.

But it was Yameen of the PPM who drew upon hyper-nationalist sentiment. Under Yameen’s administration, the Maldives pivoted to China and awarded tenders to Chinese companies to carry out infrastructure and housing development projects in the spirit of BRI.

This included the Sikna-Male Bridge and linking Male with the airport island. Thus, Yameen and Muizzu together had to counter Solih, which took the shape of the Maldives deciding to shift from a pro-Indian stance to a pro-Chinese stance.

It was done very awkwardly. The Maldives, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, has the environmental and not ideological compulsions to keep pace with the changing strategic calculus.