Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu on Sunday left for Turkey on his first official visit instead of first visiting India, as is the custom for all newly-elected heads of government of all neighbouring countries except Pakistan. This further raised concerns that relations between India and Maldives will go through a challenging time under the new President, considered to be pro-China.
According to multiple reports, the Maldives President departed for Turkey on Sunday with First Lady Sajidha Mohamed and met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials during his visit. This signals Muizzu's attempts to steer the island nation away from Indian help, which was already seen when he demanded the removal of Indian troops from the archipelago.
Former Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, with whom India enjoyed friendly relations, visited New Delhi in 2018 after assuming the presidency. Even Abdullah Yameen, Muizzu's close associate and the openly pro-China leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives, came to India on his first foreign visit.
Muizzu's decision to visit Turkey has become another sign of his anti-India stance. However, by choosing neither India nor Canada, the President may have indicated that his foreign policy will not be tilted towards either of the Asian adversaries, but instead will focus on Maldives only.
However, the choice of Turkey as the destination for the first visit does not bode well for the India-Maldives relations, as Ankara and New Delhi have sparred on many sensitive geopolitical issues. Turkey is close to India's primary rival Pakistan and Erdogan has lent support to Islamabad on the Kashmir issue. Erdogan has also reportedly sought an alternative to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 Summit in September.
Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Maldives were established in 1979. Turkey and Maldives are two friendly nations in close cooperation at several international platforms, particularly the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Muizzu's anti-India stance
Muizzu had built his entire presidential campaign on the presence of the Indian military presence against Solih. The pro-China leader, who rose to prominence in the 'India Out' campaign, had accused Solih of allowing Indian troops in the island nation.
After becoming the President, Muizzu demanded the removal of 77 Indian personnel and also ordered a review of 100 agreements with India. Both sides agreed to discuss 'workable solutions' to continue the use of Indian military platforms. Although he said that he intends to work with both India and China, Muizzu's stance remains a major headache for the Indian foreign policy.
Muizzu has been travelling to foreign countries even before his swearing-in, seeking alternative resources of funding to reduce dependence on India, according to reports. The Maldives remains one of the biggest beneficiaries of India's Neighbourhood First policy, which contributed significantly to public welfare, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and combating illegal maritime activities in the country.
The new Maldives President recently secured $80 million for the Male Airport project from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during his recent visit, meaning that he does not need to seek further credit from India for the project. India had earlier provided $136.6 million for the expansion of the project.
Muizzu will now head for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) hosted by the UAE. The conference will also be attended by PM Modi, but it is unlikely that the two leaders will meet face-to-face during the talks.
Maldives holds great importance for both India and China, as it lies on the way of cargo shipping lines and is considered a gateway of geopolitical influence over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which has witnessed a growing belligerence by China in recent times. It is, however, unpredictable with rampant crime and corruption in domestic politics.
However, it is one of India's key maritime neighbours in the IOR and occupies a special place in the Prime Minister’s vision of ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region). India was the first country to assist Maldives during a failed coup in 1988 and two devastating tsunamis in 2004 and 2014. The largest partner in trade and tourism, India has embarked on a crucial Greater Malé Connectivity Project, which seeks to connect the capital to nearby islands.
India has offered bilateral and development assistance to the island country, such as the establishment of a medical complex in the capital Male, providing humanitarian relief in disasters, establishing a robust trade partnership and investment in several infrastructural projects. India has also constructed numerous parks, hospitals, community centres, and schools for civilians.
If Muizzu leans towards China, it will put him at odds with other countries who are battling the rising aggression by Beijing authorities in the continent and on the South China Sea. It has also generated fears that Muizzu's pro-China stance will impact Indian projects, as the government is expected to prefer Chinese companies.
However, India is geopolitically closer in proximity to the island nation and given its past of being a first responder and provider of defence and essential supplies, the diplomatic community is likely to side against him should he adopt a strong anti-India stance.