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After asking New Delhi to withdraw its troops from Maldives, Prez Muizzu stops India from conducting hydrographic surveys

New Delhi has not yet officially reacted to Malé’s move to stop India from conducting hydrographic surveys around the Maldives.
nirban Bhaumik
Last Updated : 14 December 2023, 18:19 IST
Last Updated : 14 December 2023, 18:19 IST

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After asking New Delhi to withdraw its troops from the Maldives, the new government headed by President Mohamed Muizzu in Malé has now decided to stop India from conducting hydrographic surveys in the territorial waters of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

India’s role in conducting hydrographic surveys in the territorial waters of the Maldives has been a bugbear for China, which has been trying to expand its naval footprint and geopolitical influence in the Indian Ocean region.

New Delhi has not yet officially reacted to Malé’s move to stop India from conducting hydrographic surveys around the Maldives. But, according to the sources, it suspects that the Muizzu Government’s latest initiative to scale down India-Maldives cooperation in hydrography was also intended to placate China, just as its move to make India withdraw its troops from Maldives was.

Mohamed Firuzul Abdul Khaleel, undersecretary for public policy at the office of the President of the Maldives, told journalists in Malé that the new administration had decided against renewing the bilateral hydrography cooperation agreement with India after its expiry on June 7, 2024.

He said that New Delhi had been informed about the latest decision of Malé.

It was during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Malé in June 2019 that India and the Maldives – then led by Muizzu’s predecessor Ibrahim Mohamed Solih – had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for cooperation in the field of hydrography.

The MoU purportedly allowed India to conduct hydrographic surveys in the territorial waters of the Maldives, mapping underwater surfaces and physical features. China was not amused.

Muizzu’s campaign for the presidential polls saw him opposing and promising to reverse Solih’s ‘India First’ policy of treating India as a preferred partner for the Maldives. He had vowed to start the process of removing all military personnel of India from Maldives immediately after taking oath.

India has 77 military personnel in the Maldives. They were deployed to operate and fly two Dornier aircraft and a helicopter gifted by India to the Maldives for emergency evacuation of people from the islands. The Muizzu Government already formally requested New Delhi to withdraw the military personnel.

Muizzu was a candidate of the Progressive Congress, a coalition of his own People’s National Congress (PNC) and the incarcerated former president Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s People’s Party of Maldives (PPM). He defeated incumbent president Solih of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) in a runoff on September 30.

Yameen, who was voted out in 2018, had led the Maldives into a debt trap by awarding China’s state-owned companies lucrative contracts to build several infrastructure projects – mostly on unsustainable loan terms – ignoring the security interests of India. Though Beijing’s influence over Yameen's regime had resulted in strains in New Delhi’s relations with Malé, it saw a reset after Solih and former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed led the MDP to victory in the November 2018 elections.

Yameen, however, led an ‘India Out’ campaign over the past few years, setting a narrative against New Delhi. It helped him and Muizzu set the narrative against Solih’s India First policy during the campaign for the presidential polls, leading to the change in regime in Malé.

The “India Out” campaign gained momentum in Maldives after New Delhi on February 21, 2021, signed an agreement with the Solih Government to “develop, support and maintain” a harbour at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in the island nation. Though the new harbour is being built officially for the use of the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard, it is also being seen as a strategic asset that could give India an edge over China, which has been trying to spread its tentacles in the Indian Ocean region.

The 2023 presidential elections saw the parties of Yameen and Muizzu campaigning that the naval facility the Solih Government allowed New Delhi to build would eventually be turned into India’s military base in the Maldives, thus undermining the sovereignty of the archipelago. Solih and his party countered it, claiming that the naval facility would rather enhance the capability of the Defence Forces of the Maldives in exercising jurisdiction and undertaking maritime surveillance of its exclusive economic zone and the islands.

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Published 14 December 2023, 18:19 IST

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