India-Maldives Geopolitical Turmoil in South Asia

The geopolitical playfield of South Asia has seen much turmoil in recent years. In particular, it changed when China’s ambitious 'Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI)' entered into India's neighbouring.

The geopolitical playfield of South Asia has seen much turmoil in recent years. In particular, it changed when China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI)’ entered into India’s neighbouring. Before announcing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in April 2015, India had maintained very close friendship ties with almost every country in South Asia except Pakistan.

However, there are also other domestic and external determinants of changing India’s attitude in the region. First, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in 2014 also changed political narratives not only within India but also implemented them for neighbouring countries due to the Hindutva-centric, unambiguously ideological policy of the BJP. After the 2019 General Assembly win, the BJP showed more assertive policy actions and several law changes. In 2019, the BJP gained more power than ever in terms of majority in both houses of parliament and state-wise governments. Second, India has become the fifth-largest economy in terms of GDP, with US$ 3.7 trillion. Third, India has also become the most populated country in the world, with 1.4 billion people. India is also the largest consumer market in the world and provides influential negotiating power in the context of international trade.

Keeping above these factors, geopolitical studies allow the projection of power in the centre of ideological, cultural, economic, or military factors that affect political geography in South Asia. The current relations between India and the Maldives include all these but with the impact of complexities in the recent tensions on the geopolitical stage. India and the Maldives have shared significant historical, geographical, and geopolitical ties that make them key strategic partners. India provided the Maldives with health assistance, military assistance, economic assistance, and diplomatic support. But in recent years, the geopolitical relationship between these two has been marked by both cooperation and tension.

Contributing factors to the recent tensions are 1) China’s increasing influence, 2) political instability, 3) a craving for greater autonomy, and 4) Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu’s inclination towards China and Turkey. In October 2023, pro-China opposition candidate Muizzu’s party won the Maldives presidential election by beating pro-Indian President Ibrahim Solih, who had an “India First” policy, During the campaign, Muizzu’s raised the slogan ‘Out India, which means removing Indian troops from the islands. After the victory, President Muizzu also broke tradition by visiting India first; instead of doing this, he visited Turkey. His priority is to reduce dependence on India, which also signalled a shift in foreign policy. Meanwhile, he also secured UAE aid for an India-funded project at Male Airport.

Recent issues fuelled the geopolitical tension when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his visit to the Union Territory of Lakshadweep on January 3, 2024. On his X handle, he shared exquisite pictures and also requested people to explore the beauty of these islands. Modi’s promotion of the Lakshadweep islands for tourism has backfired on the Maldives. Because the Maldives and India’s Lakshadweep islands are in the emerald Arabian Sea. So, the Maldives has objected to India’s move to promote Indian islands, e.g., a Maldivian political leader and MP, Zahid Rameez, said the “idea of competing with us is delusional.” Other two Maldivian ministers also made derogatory comments about Modi’s visit to the Indian Islands on social media; such remarks included “terrorist” and “clown.” After that, the social media exchange of words heated up the India-Maldives geopolitical crisis.

The implication of tension in the Maldives translated into a tourism boycott by Indian tourists. Most tourists come to the Maldives from India and Russia, which account for a third of the country’s economy via tourism. Turbulence sparked in the middle of President Muizzu’s second state visit to China, where he requested to send tourists. He is looking for better relations with China, which is strategically critical for New Delhi. After his five-day China visit, he asked New Delhi to withdraw Indian troops by March 15, 2024, from the Maldives. Muizzu also disclosed his plans to import food from Turkey and medicines from Europe and the US. Further implication could be an expensive food and medicine import other than India. That could be a possible economic fallout, which already other island countries in South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, faced.   

The blow-up implication is there for both countries because India and the Maldives have long-standing strategic relations. As per classical geopolitics, a power projection analytical model was applied in the case of India and the Maldives: 1) ideological: both countries current political regime enjoy the conservative politics such as Hindu and Islamic nationalism that drives civilization clashes; 2) culture: these religious civilization clashes in conduct of foreign policy; 3) economic: both countries are ready to compromise their economic dependencies, as the above example clearly shows; and 4) military: Indian naval forces have been protecting Maldivian islands for a long time, and the recent rise of attacks on cargo ships by the terrorist groups could lead to serious security threats in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas. This geopolitical turmoil can only be seen as a lose-lose situation. Muizzu’s dependency on China could lead to debt traps and a subsequent economic crisis, as Sri Lanka faced such consequences, if we look from Indian and Western perspectives. For India, there are serious questions of regional integration and security. Currently, India is already in critical relations with Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, where China’s influence is increasing day by day in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.      

Dr. Simant Shankar Bharti
Dr. Simant Shankar Bharti
Dr. Simant Shankar Bharti is a Lecturer at the University of Economics and Human Sciences in Warsaw. He obtained his PhD Diploma from the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland. His research interests include European Union policies, regional geopolitics, the geopolitics of the world order, South Asia and the Global South.