Maldives Signals Strategic Shift: Troop Withdrawal and Hydrography Agreement Termination

In a significant geopolitical development, President Mohamed Muizzu, who secured victory in the September presidential election, vowed to remove a small Indian military contingent of 77 personnel. The move was part of his electoral promises and marked a notable shift in the country’s foreign relations.

The new government, inaugurated on November 17, formally communicated its request for the withdrawal of Indian troops. On December 1, subsequent to his initial meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the COP28 summit in Dubai, President Mohamed Muizzu of the Maldives, recently elected, declared that an agreement had been reached for the withdrawal of Indian troops from his nation.

However, the diplomatic shift goes beyond military presence. On Thursday, the Maldives declared its decision to terminate a hydrography agreement signed in 2019, allowing India access to study and chart the Maldivian seabed.

Undersecretary Mohamed Firzul Abdul Haleel revealed in a press conference that the termination notice has been served, requiring six months’ notice for the agreement to end officially on June 4, 2024.

The hydrography agreement, established on June 8, 2019, aimed to identify the characteristics of the Maldives’ seas and marine life. It also facilitated the creation of a specialized office and facilities for hydrography within the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). The agreement enabled Indian navy vessels to conduct surveys in various regions of the Maldives, collecting valuable data on reefs, lagoons, coastlines, ocean currents, and tide levels.

The termination of the hydrography agreement raises questions about the future dynamics of maritime cooperation between the Maldives and India. The agreement’s termination aligns with the broader realignment of the Maldives’ foreign policy, highlighting the government’s intent to reassess and redefine its strategic partnerships.

It is noteworthy that the Maldives is entitled to receive royalty payments from hydrographic charts sold internationally, providing the nation with a source of income. The termination of the agreement signifies a deliberate step by the Maldives to recalibrate its engagement in hydrographic activities, potentially impacting revenue streams.

As the geopolitical landscape in the Indian Ocean region undergoes changes, the decisions made by the Maldives regarding troop withdrawal and agreement termination will likely have implications on regional dynamics and diplomatic ties. The evolving situation prompts further examination of the factors influencing these strategic shifts and their potential consequences for the nations involved.

Muizzu’s electoral campaign prominently featured an “India Out” stance, and a day after securing victory in September, the pro-China president-elect formally requested India to remove its military personnel from the Indian Ocean archipelago. Concurrently, he expressed intentions to review existing bilateral agreements between India and the Maldives.

Having been closely associated with former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen (2013-18), during whose tenure relations with China expanded significantly, Muizzu defeated the pro-India Ibrahim Solih (2018-2023) to assume the presidency.

In contrast to Solih’s “India First” policy, Muizzu’s “India Out” campaign signifies a strategic shift to diminish the Maldives’ reliance on India. Since assuming the presidency, Muizzu has been actively exploring new partnerships, diverging from the customary practice of new Maldivian presidents making India their inaugural foreign visit. Instead, he opted for visits to Turkey and subsequently the UAE, postponing a visit to India, thereby signaling a recalibration of diplomatic engagements.

In an Indian Express article, prominent security analyst C. Raja Mohan observes that smaller states in the Indian Subcontinent are increasingly becoming geopolitical targets for major powers like the US, China, Russia, and even middle powers like Turkey. These smaller nations, including the Maldives, are actively seeking new partnerships, a strategic shift that can be perceived as a natural inclination for smaller countries to diversify their security collaborations.

Mohan advises India to exercise caution, particularly regarding attempts by Turkey, Qatar, or Pakistan to draw the Maldives into their Islamic orbit, especially amidst growing geopolitical differences between Ankara and New Delhi. He suggests that India should approach its engagement with the Maldives with patience and consider collaborating with like-minded Middle Eastern partners such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia to prevent potential destabilization by Turkey.

An essential aspect of Maldivian foreign policy under President Muizzu that merits attention is how he will navigate relations with geopolitical rivals India and China. Both nations are keenly interested in the Maldives due to its strategic location near crucial Sea Lanes of Communication (SLCOs) for maritime trade between West Asia and Southeast Asia.

China’s increasing interest in the Maldives and its expanding presence in the archipelago have raised concerns in India, leading to intense competition between the two nations.

Chinese congratulatory expressions to Muizzu after his election victory highlighted a keenness to promote Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the Maldives. Muizzu reciprocated by expressing eagerness to strengthen bilateral ties, including cooperation on the BRI.

During a conference of the China-sponsored Indian Ocean Region Forum (IORF), Maldivian Vice-President Hussain Mohamed Latief advocated for inclusive cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), possibly referencing the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at countering China. Latief, the first high-level official to visit China since Muizzu assumed office, also acknowledged China’s significant role in the Maldives’ progress.

India faces several challenges during Muizzu’s tenure in the Maldives. China is expected to expand its influence, while India’s military stakes and investments may diminish. The possibility of increased anti-India terror activities originating from Maldivian soil is a concern. While India has reaffirmed its multifaceted partnership with the Maldives, it remains opposed to the BRI.

India might postpone its plan to include the Maldives in the Indo-Pacific strategy, focusing instead on employing soft power to maintain influence. Despite historical closeness between India and the Maldives, Muizzu’s administration may introduce shifts influenced by domestic politics and nationalist sentiments. Balancing relations between India and China, Muizzu is likely to adopt a more independent, balanced, and diversified foreign policy rather than a pro-China stance, considering the Maldives’ past experiences with China’s debt trap.

Muhammad Wasama Khalid is a Correspondent and Researcher at Global Affairs. He is pursuing his Bachelors in International Relations at National Defense University (NDU). He has a profound interest in history, politics, current affairs, and international relations. He is an author of Global Village Space, Global Defense Insight, Global Affairs, and Modern Diplomacy. He tweets at @Wasama Khalid and can be reached at Wasamakhalid@gmail.com

Wasama Khalid
Wasama Khalid

Muhammad Wasama Khalid is a Correspondent and Researcher at Global Affairs. He is pursuing his Bachelors in International Relations at National Defense University (NDU). He has a profound interest in history, politics, current affairs, and international relations. He is an author of Global Village Space, Global Defense Insight, Global Affairs, and Modern Diplomacy. He tweets at @Wasama Khalid and can be reached at Wasamakhalid@gmail.com

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