India urges pro-China Maldives to ease tensions, improve strained relationship

Published : 09 May 2024 09:36 PM

India urged pro-China Maldives on Thursday to ease tensions and improve their strained relationship.

The foreign ministers of India and Maldives met in New Delhi a day ahead of a deadline set by the Maldives’ new president, Mohamed Muizzu, for India to withdraw dozens of its soldiers from the archipelago nation.

Tensions between India and Maldives have grown since pro-China Muizzu came to power last year.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told his Maldives counterpart, Moosa Zameer, that India has been a key provider of development assistance, including infrastructure projects, medical care and health facilities.

"It is in our common interest that we reach an understanding on how best we can take our relationship forward,” a statement by India's External Affairs Ministry quoted Jaishankar as saying.

Zameer’s response was not immediately known.

Regional powers India and China are competing for influence in Maldives, which has a strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

Muizzu’s election sharpened their rivalry as he took a pro-China stand and acted to remove Indian troops stationed on one of Maldives’ islets.

The Press Trust of India news agency said India has withdrawn 51 of its soldiers in two batches from Maldives so far.

At least 75 Indian military personnel were stationed in the Maldives. They operated two aircraft donated by India and assisted in the rescue of people stranded or faced with calamities at sea. Muizzu has taken steps to have civilians take over those activities.

Muizzu ran for president on a campaign theme of “India out,” accusing his predecessor of compromising national sovereignty by giving India too much influence.

After taking office, Muizzu visited China ahead of India and said Maldives’ small size is not a license for anyone to bully it.

On his return, he spelled out plans to rid his nation of dependence on India for health facilities, education and medicines. Last year, New Delhi started construction of the Indian-funded Greater Male connectivity project, billed as the largest infrastructure initiative in the island nation, a 6.7-kilometer (4.2-mile) -long bridge and causeway connecting the capital city, Male, with the islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi.

India also is helping Maldives to build 4,000 homes and has extended a $100 million line of credit to finance other infrastructure projects. The two countries have signed agreements for cooperation in cybersecurity, disaster management and fishing zone forecast capacity.

In 2013, Maldives joined China’s “Belt and Road” initiative to build ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.