Maldives asks India to withdraw troops from its soil as relations strain

New Delhi and Male have historically been close but in recent years Male has warmed up to Beijing

Workers of Maldives President Mohammed Muizzu display a flag with the slogan 'India Out', in the capital Male. Reuters
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Maldives has asked India to withdraw its military personnel from the archipelago by March amid a souring of relations between the two countries, including a row over derogatory remarks about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The island nation in the Indian Ocean has been a close and critical neighbour of New Delhi, but their ties have become strained as Male has warmed to China, India’s main regional rival, in recent years.

There are around 75 Indian military personnel in Maldives. They were reportedly deployed in the country in 2020 to maintain and operate aircraft for emergency evacuations.

“Indian military personnel cannot stay in the Maldives. This is the policy of President Dr Mohamed Muizzu and that of this administration,” Abdulla Nazim Ibrahim, public policy secretary at the President’s Office, said on Sunday after talks in Male between officials from both countries.

New Delhi has not commented directly on the demand. A statement from the Indian foreign ministry said both sides "held discussions on finding a mutually workable solution to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medvac services to the people of Maldives".

Male has historically has been the biggest beneficiary of India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and has received significant public welfare and humanitarian assistance from New Delhi. In 2020 India committed $500 million for a project to link Male to three nearby islands. It also extended financial assistance of $250 million to Maldives during the Covid pandemic.

But the relationship took a sharp downward turn after Mohammad Muizzu, a pro-China politician, took office in November after winning an election which many say was won on the plank of anti-India rhetoric.

Mr Muizzu promised to remove “foreign military boots” from Maldivian soil if he came to power, with many supporters of the ruling People's National Congress rallying around "India out" slogans.

Relations between Maldives and China improved under Mr Muizzu's mentor Abdulla Yameen, who was president from 2013 to 2018.

China has invested $1.37 billion in the Maldives since 2014, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

It also remains the Maldives' largest external creditor, accounting for about 20 per cent of its total public debt, according to World Bank data.

The two countries announced a number of partnerships when Mr Muizzu visited Beijing last week, breaking a tradition of Maldivian presidents making New Delhi their first port of call after being elected.

The visit to Beijing took place amid a row on social media sparked by Mr Modi’s visit to India’s Lakshadweep islands, which are known for their white sand beaches and natural beauty.

Mr Modi’s government is trying to turn the federally administered archipelago into a global tourist hotspot like its southern neighbour the Maldives, despite it being an ecologically sensitive region.

While neither Mr Modi nor his government made any reference to the Maldives, many online Hindu nationalist users exhorted Indians to visit Lakshadweep instead of Maldives, prompting reactions from Maldivians that escalated into a diplomatic row.

At least three Maldivian ministers including Mariyam Shiuna, the Deputy Minister of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts, allegedly called the Indian prime minister a “clown” and “diver in a life jacket” in now-deleted Twitter posts. The three ministers were later suspended.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 12:07 PM