New Delhi has successfully parried the call by Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu 2024 to remove all Indian military personnel from Maldives by March 15, 2024.  Currently, around 80 Indian military personnel are in Maldives primarily to operate two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft for medical evacuations from far-flung islands and humanitarian missions.

Following the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Muizzu on the sidelines of COP28 Summit in Dubai in December 2023, a decision was taken to set up a high-level India-Maldives core group to fast track the withdrawal of Indian military troops, the first meeting of which was held on January 14 this year at Male. The Indian stance was that more discussions would be held on the issue.

The second meeting of the high-level core group was held at New Delhi on February 2, 2024. Following the meeting, news in the Indian media states that a joint statement was released after the meeting, where it was said that both the sides agreed on a set of mutually workable solutions to enable the continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medevac services to the Maldives people and that no details on the withdrawal of all Indian military personnel from Maldives was mentioned in the joint statement.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has said that solutions worked out by the two sides would “enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medevac services to the people of Maldives. During the meeting, both sides continued their discussions on wide-ranging issues related to bilateral cooperation towards identifying steps to enhance the partnership, including expediting the implementation of ongoing development cooperation projects. It was agreed to hold the next meeting of the high-level core group in Male on a mutually convenient date.”

However, the Maldivian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement saying, “Both sides agreed that the Government of India will replace the military personnel in one of the three aviation platforms by March 10 and will complete replacing military personnel in the other two platforms by May 10.”

The variations in the above statements showed that the MEA has been working on avoiding embarrassment of complete pullout of our around 80 military personnel from Maldives before the Lok Sabha elections, and has guided the Indian media accordingly. The second factor would have been the possibility of Muizzu getting impeached or something untoward happening to him – akin to what happened to the Prosecutor General Hussain Shameen. The third factor may have been hope against hope (however vain) that Muizzu may have a change of heart.

Expecting a change of heart by Muizzu is akin to hoping the POTUS Joe Biden renounces violence and converting to Buddhism. Aside from being pro-China, Muizzu’s following actions very clearly indicate his intent: telling the media, “Maldives may be small but it does not give counties (read India) the license to bully us”; inking a US$37 million deal with Turkey to buy military drones for patrolling the high seas – a task that was so far done by India in partnership with the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF); securing aid from the UAE for the India-funded Male Airport project and decision to review all Indian projects in Maldives; allowing Chinese spy ship to berth in Maldives for hydrographic survey.

The moot question was who to “replace” the Indian military personnel – first tranche on March 10 and the balance by May 10? Would the replacements be Indians, Maldivians, Turkish or Pakistanis? Indian replacements are unlikely   unless Muizzu is impeached. He may even be coerced by China to do so.  However, Muizzu has now said in the Parliament that the first lot of Indian troops will be out on March 10 and the balance by May 10.

Amid the grim atmosphere, some humour was injected with Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar assuring Muizzu of Pakistan’s support to address the pressing development needs of the Maldives. One wonders if Kakar Mian was speaking on the behalf of Beijing or plans to borrow additional money from China for passing it on to Maldives for strategic reasons.

Another recent development is set to further aggravate India-Maldives already strained relations. Maldives has formally requested the Indian government to provide “comprehensive details” of an incident in which Indian Coast Guard (ICG) personnel boarded three Maldivian fishing vessels operating within Maldives’ exclusive economic zone. Maldives’ Defence Ministry said in a statement that on January 31, ICG personnel intercepted  Maldivian fishing boats engaged in fishing activities within the Maldives’ Special Economic Zone (EEZ), located 72 nautical miles northeast of Dhidhdhoo, without prior consultation with relevant authorities, thereby breaching international maritime laws and regulations.

The statement said that personnel from ICG Ships 246 and 253 boarded the three fishing boats and interrogated the fishermen. “Consequently, the Maldivian government has initiated an official request through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seeking comprehensive details of the incident from the Indian government,” it said. There was no immediate response from the Indian government to the Maldivian allegations.

Looking at the dynamics of the situation, it is difficult to forecast the future. However, this much is certain that if Muizzu continues in power, China will establish a transshipment port-cum-naval base in Maldives, with covert/overt presence of PLA Navy (PLAN) personnel – most likely at Gadhoo Island. China is already committed to building a commercial port in Male and among the many memorandums of understanding (MoUs) signed by Muizzu  Beijing recently, the one on  Strategic Cooperation mentions  ‘four years’. This indicates that China will go full steam to absorb Maldives into its strategic terms.

Looking at European leaders letting their economies and populace suffer on account of the Ukraine war and Israel importing thousands of workers from India and other countries, It would not be surprising if China is working on replacing the 29,000 odd Indians living and working in Maldives to be replaced by Pakistanis, Turkish or other nationalities.

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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