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Can Maldives’ pro-China President-elect afford to move away from India?

India-Maldives ties: Which way is it headed?

Maldives’ President-elect Mohamed Muizzu, who is set to take charge officially on November 17, is expected to throw more light on the political and foreign policy contours of his government in the next one and half months. Even as he reiterated that his government will remove Indian military personnel stationed in the archipelago state, as promised during his election campaign, foreign policy watchers said that in the current scenario, Male will not be able to “completely move away from New Delhi” amid a new emerging world order.

Sources said that Indian authorities are in touch with members of Muizzu’s team and high-level visits from New Delhi to Male in the near future cannot be ruled out.

Considered pro-China and anti-India, Muizzu, leading the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-People’s National Congress (PNC) coalition, is a staunch supporter of former President Abdulla Yameen, who carved out the India Out campaign. Yameen, known for his close association with China, is currently serving an 11-year jail term.

Dhanuraj D, chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research told India Narrative that New Delhi needs to wait and watch while continuing to engage with the new leadership of the archipelago state.

“We need to understand that pre-election dynamics may not always be followed after elections. Even political alliances can change. There could be many alterations and tweaking in Male’s foreign policy, especially when it comes to India,” Dhanuraj said, adding that New Delhi needs to continue with its focus on expanding people to people contact. “India needs to come up with more confidence building measures. For one air connectivity between the two nations must increase,” he said.

PPM’s vice president Mohamed Shareef ‘Mundhu’ told the Indian news website that “all the fear-mongering about China is unwarranted.”

“We strongly value and want to work with India on the safety and security of the Indian Ocean, in which we have said that the biggest stakeholder will continue to be India,” he said.

“India’s neighbourhood relations cannot be assessed by short-term political developments in the neighbouring country. These are not transactional but civilizational relations,” Navita Srikant, geopolitical, financial and security expert, told India Narrative.

Srikant noted that the Maldivian leadership is currently faced with surmounting economic pressures. “Muizzu led government cannot endanger the economy and national security of the country with shortsighted exposures in a polarised world order,” she said.

The 45 year old Muizzu won 54.06 per cent of the vote in the run-off contest with the outgoing President Ibrahim Solih, who has been openly pro India.

While Muizzu has already assured that the jailed Yameen who was charged with corruption and money laundering will be transferred to home confinement, analysts said that it is yet to be seen if the former President is eventually discharged, as many are expecting.

On Monday night, while addressing supporters, Muizzu said that he will remove Indian military personnel stationed in the archipelago state, as promised during his election campaign.

“The people have told us that they don’t want foreign military here,” he said.

Meanwhile, congratulating Muizzu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.”

Last year, India extended $100 million to the Maldives in the form of budgetary support to help Male address the economic challenges.

Besides the ambitious Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP), last year, Male and JMC Projects (India) inked a contract for Maldives Hanimaadhoo International Airport Development Project. It is being developed under the $800 million concessional Line of Credit (LoC) extended by India to the Maldives. Under the GMCP, a 6.74 km long bridge and causeway link is being built. This will connect the national capital Male with three adjoining islands –Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi.

According to the Interpreter, ultimately, Muizzu will likely try to straddle the India-China divide, giving (perhaps, tacit) primacy to the India relationship in foreign policy and security, but also allowing closer economic engagement with China. “That is what many countries in the Indian Ocean are trying to do,” it said.

Also read: Will India light up Maldives’ path to energy security, renewables?