India and Maldives have reached an agreement to gradually phase out the presence of Indian military personnel from the island nation after tensions arose over remarks made by Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
Background of Indian Military Presence
India and Maldives have historically had close ties, with India playing a major role in building up Maldives’ security capabilities over the years. This includes:
- Providing training and equipment to Maldives’ military and police
- Conducting joint exercises
- Deploying military experts to help run critical infrastructure like radars and surveillance systems
As of 2024, India has around 1,400 military personnel stationed across Maldives. They are spread out over three key platforms:
|Indira Gandhi International Airport
|Manning radars, navigational equipment
|Over 700 across air traffic control, navy marine commandos, and ground staff
|Coastal Surveillance Radar Stations
|Manning coastal radars
|Over 400 staff across 10 stations
|Training Maldives’ National Defence Force
|Around 300 Indian army personnel
This military presence has been an important pillar of India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy to counter the growing Chinese influence in South Asia.
However, remarks made by President Solih in January 2024 about asking India to withdraw its military sparked tensions between the two countries.
President Solih’s Remarks Lead to Diplomatic Row
In January 2024, pro-China groups launched an “India Out” campaign across Maldives. This was followed by President Solih stating that India should withdraw its military presence as Maldives can manage its own security. His office also sent an official communique to India’s envoy in Maldives asking for all Indian military personnel to exit by the end of June 2024.
This sudden turn of events took India by surprise. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar responded that President Solih might be playing internal politics ahead of elections. He also emphasized that neighbours need each other and should focus on mutual cooperation.
As tensions rose over the next few weeks, China offered to step in and expand its presence to make up for any vacuum left by India’s exit. Pakistan also offered military assistance to Maldives as an alternative.
With Chinese warships increasingly making port calls in Maldives, India looked to quickly resolve the crisis.
India and Maldives Agree on Phased Replacement Plan
On February 3rd, 2024, India and Maldives held their second round of talks under a special “Core Group” set up to resolve the military presence issue.
The meeting concluded with both sides agreeing to gradually replace the Indian military staff currently stationed in Maldives. The phase-out will happen under a coordinated plan led by the Core Group.
The withdrawal and replacement process will cover Indian army personnel across the three key platforms:
- Radar systems
- Air traffic control
- Training academy
As per the agreement:
- Withdrawal will start by March 10, 2024
- Full replacement across all platforms to be completed by May 10, 2024
The Core Group will ensure it is done smoothly without impacting capabilities and security. Indian teams will train their Maldivian replacements during the transition.
Behind the Scenes Negotiations
While the joint statement portrayed the agreement as a mutual decision, reports indicate India negotiated hard behind-the-scenes.
Sources say India used trade and visas as bargaining chips to get President Solih to back down from the call for a full military withdrawal.
With Maldives suffering from a raging economic crisis and overly dependent on tourism, threats of import bans and visa restrictions helped change the president’s stance.
India was also able to leverage the pro-India sentiments of other leading political groups in Maldives to pressure the government.
What Does This Mean for India-Maldives Ties?
The phased withdrawal agreement marks a reset of ties between India and Maldives after January’s tensions.
By retaining some military presence in the near term, India will look to complete bolstering Maldives’ national security apparatus before fully exiting.
However, the saga shows the increasing fragility of India’s hold over South Asia as Chinese influence rises. President Solih’s changing rhetoric likely indicates behind-the-scenes maneuvers by pro-China lobbyists.
With elections upcoming in Maldives, political parties will continue playing religious and ethnic issues to tap into anti-India sentiments. This could further strain ties with New Delhi.
India will need a combination of deft diplomacy and displaying the clear economic and military benefits of aligning with a democratic partner to keep Maldives firmly in its corner.
In the coming weeks and months, observers should track:
- The progress of the withdrawal plan under the Core Group oversight
- China’s offers of military and economic aid to Maldives as the Indian presence shrinks
- Which way Maldives leans in the next elections – pro-India or pro-China groups
- Any offers by Pakistan to expand ties and security partnerships
These factors will determine whether India can preserve its influence and keep China out of its backyard in the long run.
The fate of the Indian military presence in Maldives could have ripple effects across South Asia’s geopolitical landscape. India will be hoping it can maintain regional primacy after the recent diplomatic war of attrition.
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