Newly elected Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu has broken away from tradition by selecting Turkey as his first official overseas visit, bypassing India, which has historically been the initial destination for Maldivian presidents. This decision is seen by analysts as a clear indication of Muizzu’s intention to diversify and realign his country’s foreign policy.
Muizzu’s choice to visit Ankara, the capital of Turkey, follows a controversial anti-India campaign that propelled him to victory. His Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) capitalized on an ‘India Out’ campaign, portraying India as a dominant force seeking to undermine the country’s autonomy.
The new president has also demanded that India withdraw its military personnel from the Maldives. India has refuted these claims, stating that its 77 soldiers stationed in the Maldives, including those operating two Dhruv helicopters and Dornier aircraft, are there to provide medical assistance to residents on remote islands of the archipelago.
Analysts and sources within the Maldives suggest that Muizzu’s actions signify a significant shift in the country’s foreign relations, Shifting away from the enduring notion of India as a vital ally and strategic collaborator in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region.
Muizzu’s selection of Turkey for his inaugural official visit conveys a nuanced message to India. While India considers China a national security threat, its formal ties with Turkey are relatively stable, despite occasional tensions. Turkey has criticized Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to revoke the semi-autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir and has raised concerns about human rights violations in the region at the United Nations.
An anonymous Turkish official has indicated that Ankara is not interested in escalating tensions between India and the Maldives, but rather prioritizing its own interests. Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been actively expanding its geopolitical influence, including in South Asia. In recent months, Turkey has hosted the president of Bangladesh, resumed direct flights to Sri Lanka, and the former Turkish Foreign Minister visited the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
During the visit of Maldivian Foreign Minister Muizzu to Ankara, the two countries signed a free trade agreement and committed to strengthening defence ties, taking advantage of Turkey’s advanced defence industries. Turkey and the Maldives share similar views on key geopolitical challenges, such as criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza, while India has been more hesitant and only recently joined calls for a ceasefire.
However, analysts believe that Muizzu’s visit to Turkey is primarily aimed at distancing the Maldives from New Delhi. Before taking office, Muizzu visited the United Arab Emirates, and he also attended the COP28 summit there. Additionally, the Vice President of the Maldives visited China in December.
For India, this growing rift with the Maldives is a cause for concern, as 50 percent of India’s external trade and 80 percent of its energy imports pass through the Indian Ocean Sea lanes. Muizzu seems to be clear in his strategy: if he wants to reduce India’s influence, he needs to attract other countries. Experts believe that his foreign policy manoeuvres are aimed at diversifying the Maldives’ diplomatic relations and reducing dependence on India. This shift in foreign policy could have significant implications for regional dynamics in South Asia.
India, a long-standing ally and strategic partner of Maldives, may face diplomatic tensions as President Muizzu demands the withdrawal of Indian troops. However, India has agreed to remove soldiers and establish a committee for development projects, indicating its willingness to adapt its foreign policy to accommodate the evolving dynamics in Maldives.
Despite the ongoing tensions, India and Maldives have agreed to establish a core group to strengthen their partnership. They have discussed enhancing the India-Maldives friendship across various sectors, including economic relations, development cooperation, and people-to-people ties. This demonstrates the commitment of both countries to maintaining friendly relations and continuing their bilateral cooperation.
The shift in Maldives’ foreign policy could potentially impact India’s strategic interests in the region. As 50 percent of India’s external trade and 80 percent of its energy imports transit through Indian Ocean Sea lanes, any change in the geopolitical dynamics in the region could have significant implications for India.
While Maldives’ economic engagement with China is expected to increase, there will also be efforts to seek assistance from several other countries and maintain friendly relations with India. This suggests that while there may be a reorientation in Maldives’ foreign relations, it does not indicate a complete severance of ties with India.
The recent developments in Maldives’ foreign policy under President Muizzu’s administration present both challenges and opportunities for India. It calls for a recalibration of India’s foreign policy towards Maldives, with a focus on maintaining friendly relations and continuing bilateral cooperation, while also being prepared to navigate the changing geopolitical dynamics in the region.