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Maldives intends to be “fully independent” and will ask Indian troops stationed in the island nation to leave, says President-elect Mohamed Muizzu, as New Delhi and Beijing both vie for influence in the region.
In a heated election campaign, Muizzu had accused incumbent Ibrahim Solih of allowing India unchecked sway over the island nation’s affairs and of surrendering the country’s sovereignty by allowing Indian troops to be stationed there.
“It happens to be Indian foreign military presence here,” Muizzu, the newly elected head of the Indian Ocean archipelago, said in a wide-ranging interview to Bloomberg TV. He added that his reaction would be the same if the troops were of any other country.
Around 70 Indian military personnel maintain New Delhi-sponsored radar stations and surveillance aircrafts. Indian warships help patrol Maldives’ exclusive economic zone.
Muizzu said he has already begun negotiations with the Indian government on removing its military presence, calling those talks “very successful already.”
“We want a bilateral relationship that’s mutually beneficial,” Muizzu said, adding that Indian soldiers won’t be replaced by troops from other countries. Asking India to remove military personnel no way indicates “that I’m going to allow China or any other country to bring their military troops here,” he said.
Muizzu’s win extends the tug-of-war between China and India for influence over the strategically located Indian Ocean. Successive governments have tilted either toward India or China. Both Asian powerhouses have invested heavily in upgrading Maldives infrastructure and extended loans, as they compete with each other.
The US and its allies such as Japan and Australia are looking to isolate an increasingly assertive and assured Beijing and have invested heavily in propping-up New Delhi as a regional counterweight and key partner in Asia. That seemed to pay off as Muizzu’s predecessor, Solih steered the country closer to India.
Muizzu now promises to change tack by removing India troops and addressing the adverse trade balance with the South Asian neighbor.
“We want assistance, cooperation with all the countries,” Muizzu said, dismissing the notion that the elections were a referendum on closer ties with either China or India.
The 45-year-old engineer turned mayor of Male, the capital city, and one-time housing minister, leads a party that welcomed Chinese loans and oversaw a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent when it was last in power about five years ago. The nation of just over 500,000 people, spread over 187 inhabited islands, is a tourist destination and in the front lines of climate change. The archipelago also sits along busy shipping routes in the Indian Ocean.
India, which has long played the role of regional power, for it’s part, says it intends to work with the new Maldives government, even as it watches Muizzu’s moves warily.
“We look forward to constructively engaging with the incoming administration and discussing ways to enhance our relationship further,” Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, told reporters last week.
Asked specifically about the maritime security cooperation between the two countries and the presence of the Indian military, Bagchi said India was looking forward to continuing “multifaceted” cooperation and partnering with Maldives “for the benefit of the Maldivian people.”
India has carried out 500 medical evacuations saving 523 Maldivian lives in the last five years, Bagchi said, to reiterate India’s assistance to the nation.
India had extended a $1.4 billion financial package to Maldives in 2018 to stabilize the island economy and subsequently provided $500 million to build bridges and causeways linking Male to neighboring islands in 2020.
Maldives’ president-elect says he intends to work closely with all countries. The Indian ocean island country, Muizzu said, was too small to take sides in a “geopolitical rivalry between bigger nations.”
“Maldives first,” said Muizzu, who is scheduled to take office on Nov. 15. “That’s, I think, something that can be easily understood.”
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