Tensions between India and the Maldives have escalated in recent days after controversial comments made by a Maldivian minister about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As the Maldives grows closer to China, Beijing has urged “open mindedness” from India regarding the island nation’s relationships.
Maldivian Minister’s Remarks Spark Diplomatic Row
Last week, Maldivian Minister of State for Home Affairs Ahmed Tholal sparked outrage in India over his remarks about PM Modi’s recent visit to Lakshadweep. Tholal called the visit “unwelcome” and made other derogatory comments that were viewed as insulting by Indian authorities.
India strongly condemned the remarks, terming them “distasteful” and incompatible with the “close and friendly” ties between the two countries. The Indian foreign ministry said the comments demonstrated “a lack of respect” and were “against diplomatic protocol.”
Maldives President Defends Ties with India Amid Calls for Troop Withdrawal
Facing domestic pressure from hardline groups, Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu defended his country’s ties with India. Muizzu stated that withdrawing Indian troops, who have been stationed in the islands under a defense cooperation agreement, would “imperil democracy” in the Maldives.
However, Muizzu refused to take disciplinary action against Minister Tholal over his comments about PM Modi, creating further friction with New Delhi.
|Defense Cooperation with India
|A battalion group of Indian Army troops has been stationed in the Maldives since 2009 for quick reaction and surveillance capabilities
|India operates maritime reconnaissance aircraft from Maldives’ Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base
|India has helped set up coastal radar systems across Maldives’ 26 atolls to improve maritime domain awareness
Table showing key aspects of India-Maldives defense cooperation
Maldives President Travels to China Before Planned India Visit
On January 8th, President Muizzu departed for a five-day state visit to China along with the Maldivian First Lady. This trip comes shortly before Muizzu’s scheduled visit to India later in January.
The visit signals a deepening relationship between China and the islands at a time when Maldives-India relations show signs of strain. It also represents shifting geopolitical dynamics, as Maldives moves closer to China and away from its traditionally strong ties with India.
In Beijing, Muizzu is expected to sign several agreements with China to boost trade and infrastructure cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Key deals on the table involve Chinese investment in Maldives’ ports, roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure.
Supporting China Over India for Economic Reasons
According to political observers, President Muizzu sees China as a crucial source of finance and economic muscle at a difficult time for the tourism-dependent country. By aligning with China’s BRI ambitions in the Indian Ocean region, Muizzu aims to stimulate Maldives’ pandemic-battered economy through Chinese loans, grants and infrastructure mega-projects.
India has struggled to match China’s economic firepower and the attractive package of incentives on offer to the Maldives from Beijing.
With Sri Lanka providing a cautionary tale of excessive Chinese leverage leading to loss of strategic assets, New Delhi will be watching Maldives’ engagements with China closely during this visit. As a close maritime neighbor, India remains wary of increased Chinese presence in what it sees as its sphere of influence.
China Urges “Open Mindedness” from India Over Maldives Outreach
Responding to tensions over President Muizzu’s China visit and minister Tholal’s anti-Modi remarks, Beijing has called on India to be more “open minded” regarding Maldives’ relationships with third countries.
Chinese officials stated that Maldives, as a sovereign country, has the right to pursue an independent foreign policy and decide who it engages with. Beijing framed the island nation’s ties with China and India as not a “zero-sum game.”
Rejecting the controversy over Tholal’s comments about PM Modi, Chinese authorities claimed they “never asked Maldives to reject India” or take sides between the two Asian giants.
However, this messaging clashes with recent rhetoric in Chinese state media outlets urging Maldives to end its military cooperation pact with India and remove all Indian troops from the islands.
Uncertain Future Course of India-Maldives Ties
With Maldives seeming to tilt increasingly toward China, the future direction of its relations with India looks uncertain. Much could depend on the outcomes of President Muizzu’s planned visit to New Delhi later in January.
India will likely push hard for concrete action from Maldives over Minister Tholal’s remarks and seek renewed commitment from Muizzu to nurture the bilateral relationship.
But Muizzu also faces countervailing domestic pressures from Islamic hardliners, who remain wary of India’s influence and military presence in the islands. With parliamentary elections looming in Maldives next year, these dynamics around foreign policy and national sovereignty could gain further political salience.
The path ahead for India-Maldives ties will probably become clearer in the coming weeks as top level engagements play out. In the background, both nations will be keeping a watchful eye on rapidly evolving geopolitical currents across the Indian Ocean region.
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