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India-Maldives ties are too vital; this is not about sand and beaches: Experts

Experts emphasize the historic ties between India and Maldives, predicting a likely return to normalcy despite increased rhetoric.

India Maldives ties are too vital; this is not about sand and beaches: Experts
First Published Jan 8, 2024, 3:26 PM IST

Amid escalation in the diplomatic row with India, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu on Monday reached Beijing on a five-day official tour to enhance their bilateral engagements, a move which is being seen as the atoll nation moving away from its India First policy. Prior to him, the Maldivian President prioritized visiting India as their first foreign travel after assuming the charge. Perceived as 'Pro-China', Muizzu asked Indian defence personnel to leave the archipelago nation and also terminated the joint hydrography survey pact, which was signed in 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the island nation.

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The disparaging remarks by three Maldivian ministers recently added fuel to the fire in already-strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, the Muizzu government suspended them and clarified that the remark did not reflect the stand of the government. On Sunday, the Indian High Commissioner in Male registered a strong protest against the public officials who made derogatory remarks against the prime minister after his visit to Lakshadweep earlier this month. On Monday, India’s foreign ministry summoned the Maldives High Commissioner Ibrahim Shaheeb in Delhi. 

Hours later, Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar was called by their foreign affairs ministry. However, the Indian High Commission in Maldives, in a post on X, said: "High Commissioner Munu Mahawar had a pre-arranged meeting with H.E. Dr Ali Naseer Mohamed, Ambassador at Large, at MoFA, Maldives, today to discuss bilateral issues.”

Asianet Newsable spoke to experts to understand the ongoing crisis underway between the two nations.

According to Gulbin Sultana, Associate Fellow with the South Asia Centre in the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), the shift in Maldives' approach towards India under the Muizzu administration was expected. 

"India-Maldives relations will not be as strong as it was under Solih administration during 2018-2023. However, in my view, the bilateral relations will be managed better by Muizzu than the Yameen administration during 2013-18, even though Yameen officially announced following the India First policy."

Dr Aprajita Pandey, Assistant Professor at the Amity University’s Department of Defence and Strategy said: "Maldives has suspended the three politicians who made unsavoury and condemnable remarks about PM Modi, especially after his visit to Lakshadweep. These remarks are indicative of the insecurity that Maldives feels as more islands in the Indian Ocean begin to develop their tourism industry since Maldives certainly has been the tourist destination of the region, especially for island tourism."

"On the other hand, the fact that these politicians were suspended is more indicative of the long history of strong relations that India and Maldives have enjoyed. The relationship between India and Maldives has been one of a benefactor and the recipient of such benevolence, where India has been providing Maldives with help in almost all areas of governance, not to mention about 20 per cent of their total tourism which is their biggest sector," Dr Pandey said.
"The relationship between the two countries would in all probability remain pretty much the same as usual except for Maldives getting used to the fact that the competition for Island tourism is set to increase," she added.

With growing closeness with China, Dr Aprajita Pandey believes there would be more rhetoric expected from the new regime in Maldives. 

India’s former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao in a post on X called for recovering lost equilibrium in India-Maldives relations.  

"In the age of social media, foreign relations and the practice of diplomacy are easily eroded by ill-advised remarks made irresponsibly by persons in the public domain. Which is what happened in the Maldives. The resultant backlash in India was to be expected. I only hope that India-Maldives relations which are too vital and strategic recover lost equilibrium as soon as possible," Nirupama Menon Rao said.

"These are not ties to be trifled with. They matter too much. To both countries. We are equal partners. And must stay that way. This is not about sand and beaches," she said.

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