Maldives: Mapping Muizzu’s Foreign Policy – Analysis

By Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy

President Mohamed Muizzu, in a recent interview, called India to be the Maldives’ closest ally. This comment comes when Muizzu’s government is discussing a Free Trade Agreement with Türkiye and has signed a defence pact with China. These confusing signals raise several questions about the direction and intent of Muizzu’s foreign policy.

Four months in power, Muizzu’s policy seems to follow a three-step roadmap: diminish dependence on India, double down on cooperation with China, and diversify relations with other countries. The policy is a compromise between ideology, domestic politics, and geopolitical maneuvering.

Understanding the roadmap

Muizzu’s India policy tries to live up to the legacy of the “India Out” campaign. His actions to reduce relations with India are justified with the rhetoric of “respecting sovereignty” and making Maldives a “self-reliant” nation. Multiple factors are contributing to this nationalistic posture: one, by reducing relations with India, he wants to convey a message to the public that, unlike his predecessors, he has managed to protect and uphold the country’s sovereignty and make it self-reliant. There is an expectation that such narrative and posturing will win him a majority in the parliamentary elections due in April. Second, an anti-India policy will be able to woo support and votes from Islamists, hardliners, and some sections of the society who had coordinated with Muizzu’s Progressive Alliance for the India Out campaign and deem India to be a threat to Islam and the Maldives. Third, Chinese assurances and assistance are incentivising Muizzu to move away from India.

On the other hand, Muizzu is keen on expanding the country’s relations with China. The keen interest in reducing dependency on India and the Progressive Alliance’s strong leadership connection with the Communist Party of China has pushed the government to have close relations with Beijing. Muizzu also enjoys a personal relationship with China since his days as the housing minister. The Progressive Alliance also deems China “pro-efficient” for completing projects on time. Timely completion of the projects and China’s ability to invest and economically assist the Maldives will likely help Muizzu fulfill his electoral promises.

Leveraging the country’s geostrategic importance, the Maldives is also diversifying its relations with other countries, especially from the Middle East and the West. This diversification is for two reasons: to promote capacity building and to further economic interests and investments. Two, to increase its agency in a way that reduces dependence on India, looks for new partners other than China, and does not antagonise India completely.

Defence cooperation 

Historically, India has been the Maldives’ biggest defence partner. The three aircraft donated and operated by Indian and Indian troops were involved in the country’s HADR operations, EEZ patrolling, search and rescue missions, and medical evacuations. Over 600 such operations were conducted in the last five years. But, Muizzu is minimizing India’s role. The operations of these aircraft are on hold till the Indian troops are replaced by private operators. The government has also started an air ambulance system for medical evacuations. The Maldives has also declined to renew its hydrography agreement with India following its expiration in June and has remained absent from the Colombo Security Conclave. But, its participation in the Dosti Exercise indicates that it would like to keep defence cooperation with India to the bare minimum.

Muizzu is keen on strengthening the Maldives’ defence capabilities with other “friendly nations.” He has urged to increase the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF)’s vessels, land vehicles, and Coast Guard capacity. With China, the Maldives has signed the Global Security Initiative to deepen cooperation against traditional and non-traditional challenges. Both countries also signed a defence pact where Beijing will provide non-lethal weapons, and train the MNDF personnel for free. The docking of the Chinese research vessel/ spy ship, Xiang Yang Hong 03, in the Maldives has further increased suspicion of China cooperating with the Muizzu government to militarise the Indian Ocean Region.

Türkiye has also emerged as a crucial defence partner. Maldives has signed a US $37 million agreement with Türkiye to buy several drones. The drones, part of the country’s first-ever Air Corps, will be patrolling and conducting surveillance of the EEZ. Türkiye is also training the MNDF personnel to operate them and is providing these drones with grants and discounts. Besides, the United States (US) has also pledged four patrol boats for the Maldivian Coast Guard and is discussing the handling of an aircraft. Japan, too, is offering a US$ 6 million grant to provide a patrol craft and ensure maritime security.

Investments and development assistance: 

On investments and development assistance – India has offered a grant of US$93 million but has not undertaken any new projects. Some Indian High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) and mega-infrastructure projects like the Thilamalé bridge and Hulhumale housing projects have continued to progress. India has also finished a new runway at Hanimaadhoo Airport. Nonetheless, there is ambiguity concerning certain Indian projects. The Maldives government has remained tight-lipped about the Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) coastguard harbour and the Addu Police Academy, which were at the heart of their India Out campaign. Similarly, the EXIM-funded land reclamation and port project in Gulhifalhu has been moved to Thilafushi island, and the government has asked private and non-Indian investors to invest in the port project. It is unclear how India will respond to this, since the EXIM maintains that only Indian firms should be involved in port construction.

On the other hand, China’s role is increasing substantially. The Maldives has agreed to join the Global Development Initiative and revive the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) projects. In addition, China is offering debt relief on its loans for the next five years and offering a grant of US$130 million to renovate roads in Malé. It has also committed to building 30,000 housing units in Ras Malé, expanding the main international airport—the Velana International Airport, and undertaking a three-year commitment to maintain the Sinamalé bridge for free. There is interest in HICDPs by providing drinking water bottles, establishing desalination plants, and offering eco-friendly ambulances. In January, China and the Maldives signed several agreements to increase cooperation on blue, digital, and green economy, disaster reduction, marine cooperation, fisheries, health, and agriculture.

To diversify relations, bring new partners, and avoid alienating India completely, Muizzu is attracting investments from third countries. He has secured US$ 80 million from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for upgrading the main airport. Pan Pacific—a Thai firm will be building the US$400-600 million Thinadhoo International Airport project, and  Besix—a Belgian company will be developing the Villingili International Airport. Muizzu has also reportedly preferred The Arab Contractors—an Egyptian firm—over Chinese firms to construct the Addu city bridge. 

Trade and people-to-people relations 

The Maldives is promoting trade with other countries to reduce dependence on India. It has agreed to revive the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Beijing and is currently negotiating an FTA with Türkiye to reducetariffs on fish exports, enhance trade and cooperation, and import staple food like rice, sugar, onion, flour, etc. The government is keen on importing drugs and medicines from Europe and the US. The Saudi Council of Ministers has also decided to sign a trade agreement to facilitate trade and promote the fishing and tourism industries.

In terms of people-to-people relations, Muizzu has insisted on China retaining its status as the top tourist source. With the increase in direct flights, Beijing has secured the top position as a tourist source. On the other hand, Indian tourists have reduced by 33 percent—dropping from the top to sixth position, following the call to boycott the Maldives. China has also offered around a thousand scholarships for Maldivian civil servants, a large number of whom visit India for capacity-building programmes.

India is a popular destination among Maldivians for health services, and the latter are allowed to make insurance claims for undertaking health services and treatments. But, this scheme is now being extendedto Thailand and the UAE. In addition, the government has finalised air ambulance services with Sri Lanka, which enables the ambulances to take Maldivians to Sri Lanka for treatment. These services existed between the Maldives and India alone previously.

Muizzu’s foreign policy seems to have three objectives: reduce dependence on India, increase cooperation with China, and diversify relations with others. This approach is laying the ground for Maldives’ foreign policy for the next four and half years. However, it will be subject to some variations based on the outcome of the parliamentary elections in April.

  • About the author: Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation