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February 21, 2024

India-Maldives tensions escalate as Male sets deadline for troop withdrawal

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Jan 16, 2024

Maldives demands Indian troops leave by March 15

The diplomatic rift between India and the Maldives deepened this week, as the Indian ocean archipelago’s government demanded that Indian troops stationed there withdraw by March 15.

At a high-level “Core Group” meeting on Saturday, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid informed his Indian counterpart External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar that India must present a plan for its troops to depart within two months. There are currently just under 100 Indian army personnel stationed in the Maldives as part of bilateral defense agreements.

“The continued presence of Indian military personnel is not in the best interest of bilateral relations between India and the Maldives,” a statement from the Maldivian Foreign Ministry said. “Therefore, the Indian side must present a plan for the expeditious departure of these troops and timeline for their exit.”

India caught off-guard, response unclear

The ultimatum appeared to catch New Delhi off-guard. In response, Jaishankar said India could not guarantee the withdrawal by the March 15 date, citing “technical and logistical challenges”. However he committed to continued dialogue and finding an “early resolution” to the standoff.

Experts say the Indian government likely did not anticipate that relations would unravel so swiftly. “This confrontational approach from Male is unexpected,” said former Indian high commissioner to the Maldives, Nirupama Rao. “India has limited sway now and not many options.”

It remains unclear if and when India will withdraw its personnel stationed across the Maldives’ Addu atoll, as well as at two radar systems critical to India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. India had considered the troops’ presence relatively uncontroversial, given most were stationed in the Maldives for years.

Tourism fallout, boycott calls raise economic stakes

The diplomatic crisis now threatens to spill over into tourism and trade. Several Indian celebrities and politicians have called for boycotting travel to the upmarket island destination in solidarity. This could have major economic ramifications: India makes up the largest share of tourists to the Maldives.

Online travel agency EaseMyTrip suspended bookings to Male on Tuesday after anti-India comments on social media by a ruling party official, prompting a denial and clarification from the Maldivian government. Still, Google searches for “Maldives” reportedly dropped 15% within India amid the growing row.

Maldives newspaper Mihaaru published a strong rebuttal, saying such a boycott would only hurt ordinary Maldivians working in tourism and accusing India of “economic warfare”. Nonetheless tourism operators report cancellations by Indian groups amid the uncertainty.

Indian tourists to Maldives 2022
Number 760,000
Share of total tourists 27%

Muizzu courts China in pivot from New Delhi

In the backdrop looms the long shadow of China, whose growing investments and political backing for the Maldives government appears central to its new defiant posture towards India.

President Ibrahim Muizzu departed to Beijing on Tuesday, just days after demanding the Indian troops’ exit. China vowed support for the Maldives in “protecting its sovereignty” during the visit, where Muizzu oversaw progress on joint infrastructure projects from bridges to housing apartments funded by Chinese loans. The trip reinforced Muizzu’s visible tilt away from New Delhi and towards fortifying ties with Beijing since his election in 2023.

This shift long predates the current crisis though, as previous Maldivian governments leaned heavily on Chinese expertise and finance to develop megaprojects across the islands. Under Muizzu this has accelerated further, as he appeals to nationalist sentiment by standing up to “outside interference” from India despite the risks of over-reliance on China.

What next for India’s neighbourhood strategy?

The frayed relations with Male come alongside setbacks for New Delhi across South Asia, where regional rivals China and Pakistan are expanding engagement through the Belt and Road Initiative. It thus represents an inflection point for the Modi government’s strategy of cultivating influence amongst smaller neighbouring countries.

India remains wary of China expanding its strategic foothold in nations like Sri Lanka, Nepal and now the Maldives through massive loans for infrastructure development. Yet its inability to provide feasible alternatives, combined with tests to bilateral relationships under new regimes in Colombo and now Male, underscores the limitations of its approach.

“Rather than coerce smaller neighbours, India must reinforce that their growth and security lie together,” said former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon this week.

Within India, both government and opposition voices argue New Delhi must stand firm against the Maldivian demands rather than appease. Yet simultaneously stabilizing relations remains important given the Maldives’ proximity to Indian shores. At a delicate moment for regional geopolitics, navigating these tensions will require nuanced diplomacy in the weeks ahead.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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