Maldivian Backfill

India needs to navigate the ongoing geopolitical currents in Maldives and the growing shadow of China in the region, keeping its own strategic interests in mind

January 13, 2024 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By PIB, X / narendramodi,, Ministry of Tourism, Maldives
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Maldives went into quick backfill mode by suspending three Deputy Ministers (Mariyam Shiuna, Abdulla Mahzoon Maajid and Malsha Shareef) for making derogatory remarks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, following his visit to Lakshadweep. Preceding their suspension, the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying posts on social media platforms defaming foreign leaders and high-level officials "represented personal opinions and not the views of the government." The statement also said, "Freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, negativity, and hinder close relationships between the Maldives and international partners."

Maldives suspended three Deputy Ministers for making derogatory remarks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, affecting diplomatic relations.

Maldives President Muizzu

This happened on the eve of Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu departure on a four-day visit to China. Muizzu's office, who won the presidency on an anti-India wave, issued no statement. India's External Affairs Ministry summoned Maldivian High Commissioner to India, Ibrahim Shaheeb, after the Maldivian Ministers posted disparaging remarks on X.

Former Maldives' President Mohamed Nasheed posted on X saying India is a key ally which Maldives needs for its security and prosperity. He condemned Deputy Minister Mariyam Shiuna for her "appalling language against the leader of a key ally." Former Maldives' Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi highlighted India as the "9/11 call" for the Maldives, always coming to their rescue in times of need.

President of China, Xi Jinping, and the First Lady of China, Peng Liyuan, officially welcomed President Dr Mohamed Muizzu and First Lady Sajidha Mohamed on January 10, 2024.

Concurrent to attending the COP28 Summit at Dubai last year, Muizzu visited Turkey to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who dreams of an Islamic Emirate with himself as its Emir, and supports Pakistan's illegal claims on Kashmir.

Muizzu has secured aid from UAE for the India-funded Male Airport project, after he demanded removal of 77 Indian personnel and helicopters from Maldives and ordered review of 100 agreements with India.

Located 600 km off the southwest coast of India and 750 km from Sri Lanka, Maldives consists of 26 atolls spread over 90,000 sq km. It has over 1000 uninhabited islands. Its geostrategic value lies in its location astride three of the most important SLOCs through which most of India's trade and oil requirements pass.

Maldives under President Muizzu seeks to strengthen ties with China, raising concerns about its geopolitical alignment.

Maldives did not participate in the NSA-level 6th Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) held on December 7, 2023. At the 'China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation' in Yunnan in December 2023, Maldives' Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef said the Muizzu government is dedicated to fortifying China-Maldives relations and exploring novel avenues of collaboration and cooperation with China.

The Asian Development Blog said in November 2023 that lack of diversification of industries and government focus led to tourism accounting for more than 20 per cent of Maldives' GDP with an indirect contribution of 79 per cent in 2022. Over 17 lakh tourists visited Maldives in 2023, out of which more than 2,09,198 visitors were Indians followed by Russians (2,09,146) and China (1,87,118).

The Indian Chamber of Commerce appealed to Indian tourism and trade associations to "stop promoting Maldives in view of the anti-India feelings expressed by Ministers of Maldives." On January 6-7, 2024 alone 8,000 Indian tourists cancelled hotel bookings in Maldives and opted for alternate destinations.

Indians are the largest source market for tourists to Maldives. Lack of tourists from India will hurt the economy of the island nation.

The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), National Hotels and Guesthouses Association of Maldives (NHGAM), Maldives Association of Yacht Agents (MAYA) and National Boating Association of Maldives (NBAM) have condemned remarks by the Maldivian Ministers and called India a friend.

Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, stated in its editorial that China always treated Maldives as an equal partner and respected its sovereignty. It also said that Beijing has never asked Malé to reject New Delhi because of the conflicts between China and India, is willing to carry out trilateral cooperation between China, India and the Maldives and India should stay open minded because China's cooperation with South Asian countries is not a "zero-sum game".

India views close contact and coordination between India and Maldives in defence and security vital for peace and stability of the entire region in the backdrop of trans-national crime, terrorism, and drug trafficking in the Indian Ocean. But China always had plans to establish a port in Maldives.

The Maldivian tourism industry faces backlash from Indian associations after anti-India sentiments expressed by government officials.

Ahmed Naseem, former Maldives' Foreign Minister warned in April 2016 that Maldives wanted to allow China build a port at Gadhoo Island (437 km from Male) in the southern atoll where Chinese were already building roads. Chinese development of Gadhoo since then is not known but a China-Maldives secret deal was possibly inked when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Male in September 2014 and secured Maldivian support for China's '21st Century Maritime Silk Road'.

China may have prompted the adverse remarks by the Maldivian Ministers to widen Maldives' rift with India. China could have assured Muizzu of more Chinese tourists and financial aid although in October 2023 the World Bank warned cozying up to China could spell trouble since Maldives already owed $1.37 billion to China - 20 per cent of its public debt. Notably, India's Exim Bank has sourced $1.2 billion to Maldives in last four years.

Security concerns arise with potential terrorist threats and cyber attacks, impacting the strategic relationship between India and Maldives.

The China-Maldives-Turkey-Pakistan nexus is significant. Unemployed Maldivian youth went to Pakistan for arms training with ISI-LeT over past decades, and many have joined ISIS. In July 2023, the US designated Maldivian supporters of ISIS and Al Qaeda, including 18 x ISIS and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) facilitators and two Al Qaeda operatives, along with 29 associated companies. Our threat appreciation must also include use of both drones and 'sea mines'. The ISI and MSS (Chinese intelligence) could engineer terrorist attacks on Indian tourists and workers; some 29,000 Indians live and work in the Maldives including almost 22,000 in Malé.

In a seminar on 'Role of Security Sector in Curbing Violent Terrorism' organised by the US Pacific Command at Hawaii in 2011, the speaker from Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) said the Indian Navy must have a presence in Maldives to protect the island nation from the menace of sea pirates. But former President Yameen and now Muizzu want Indians, positioned to evacuate sick from far-flung islands, to revert back. India must also acknowledge its share of foreign policy failure in this regard.

Glimpses from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Lakshadweep

India has planned a new airport in Lakshadweep's Minicoy Island but we must create adequate world-class infrastructure and facilities for marine tourism in our islands, Andaman and Nicobar included. The Israeli Embassy in New Delhi posted on X, "We were in #Lakshadweep last year upon the federal government's request to initiate the desalination program, Israel is ready to commence working on this projecttomorrow. For those who are yet to witness the pristine and majestic underwater beauty of #Lakshadweepislands, here are a few pictures showing the island's enchanting allure."

China will draw maximum strategic and economic benefits from Muizzu's regime. Maldives government websites suffered a major cyber attack following the diatribe by the Maldives' Ministers. Concurrently, India's SPARSH portal for dispersing pension to the Armed Forces veterans suffered a massive data leak jeopardizing data of thousands of veterans.

Finally, before the diatribe by the Ministers, Maldives had requested India for a visit by Muizzu in end January 2024. The defaulter Ministers were promptly suspended by Maldives. Should we continue overhyping the issue to push Muizzu headlong into China's lap? Should we clap that Maldives under Muizzu will fall into China's debt trap if Maldives, with its strategic location, gets sucked into China's strategic sphere? Such a situation will be adverse for the security of India and the region and a victory for Beijing in ringing India from yet another direction.