‘Maldives is too small to be…’: President-elect Mohamed Muizzu says Chinese troops will not replace Indians | Mint
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Business News/ News / World/  ‘Maldives is too small to be…’: President-elect Mohamed Muizzu says Chinese troops will not replace Indians
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‘Maldives is too small to be…’: President-elect Mohamed Muizzu says Chinese troops will not replace Indians

Mohamed Muizzu, the president-elect of the Maldives, plans to remove Indian troops from the country but does not want to replace them with Chinese forces, saying he wants to avoid geopolitical rivalry.

Maldives leader says Maldives is too small to be entangled in geopolitical rivalry (AFP)Premium
Maldives leader says Maldives is too small to be entangled in geopolitical rivalry (AFP)

The Maldives's incoming president Mohamed Muizzu has vowed to expel Indian troops after taking office later this week, but told AFP he does not want to redraw regional balance by bringing in Chinese forces instead.

"Maldives is too small to be entangled in geopolitical rivalry," the president-elect said in an interview on the strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago. "I am not very much interested to engage the Maldivian foreign policy in this."

Muizzu's election success in September hinged on a sustained campaign against India's outsized political and economic clout in the Maldives, and specifically his pledge to eject Indian forces.

But he said he will not allow China -- or any other nation -- to replace them, and dismissed reports of him being closer to Beijing. He insists he is only "pro-Maldives".

"We are going to work together with all the countries, India, China and all other countries as well," the 45-year-old leader, who will be sworn in on Friday, said at his home in the capital Male.

Known for its pristine beaches and secluded resorts as one of the most expensive holiday destinations in South Asia, the Maldives has also become a geopolitical hotspot.

Global east-west shipping lanes pass the nation's chain of 1,192 tiny coral islands, scattered around 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the equator.

Muizzu was regarded as a proxy of pro-China former president Abdulla Yameen, who had shifted the country heavily into Beijing's orbit till his 2018 defeat.

Regional rivalry

Muizzu said he hoped to begin formal negotiations with New Delhi on the withdrawal of an estimated 50 to 75 Indian personnel, a sensitive campaign issue.

"The people of the Maldives did not vote for me to allow any military presence in the Maldives," the British-educated civil engineer added.

"That is why we are talking with the Indian government to remove them, and I'm sure we can do that in a peaceful and democratic manner."

Muizzu said his mandate was to remove a unit of Indian security personnel, deployed to operate three aircraft gifted to the Maldives to patrol its vast maritime territory.

"I'm not asking for the Indian troops to leave our country to make room for any other country to bring their military troops here," he said.

Regional power India had considered the Maldives with its population of about 380,000 Sunni Muslims to be within its sphere of influence, but had been worried about China's expanding footprint during Yameen's administration.

New Delhi has a history of entanglements with Male, including the deployment of soldiers to thwart a 1988 coup attempt.

Maldives first

"For the Maldives, it is very important that we put our interests first... also we want to work together with all the countries, have a good friendly relationship, cordial, candid relationship," Muizzu said.

The party nominated Muizzu after Yameen was barred from running for office following a criminal conviction of corruption during his five-year term when the country saw a spurt of Chinese-funded construction.

Muizzu, a former housing minister, is credited with implementing Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including the construction of 7,000 apartments and a landmark bridge linking the capital island Male with the nearby airport island of Hulhule.

"We are situated in a very strategic location, in which many of the sea lanes of communication go across our country," he said, adding that he was inviting foreign investment to develop ports and logistics as well as set up a tax-free zone.

Muizzu said he was banking on completing the ambitious expansion of the international airport, in a bid to jump-start an economy that was hit by heavy debt and a decline in tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He was hopeful of filling "funding gaps" for the nearly $1 billion expansion of the Velana International Airport, which he sees as a gateway to attracting more foreign direct investment.

Climate change threat

But the country's public and government-guaranteed debt was about $7 billion, or 113.5 percent of GDP at the end of last year, according to official data.

"When we look at the economy, there's a huge debt that needs to be addressed. The level of confidence of investors to come and invest in Maldives is really low," Muizzu said.

He said he was keen on expanding ports and harbour-related services to increase domestic earnings, while also looking for debt-free financing for his ambitious economic expansion plans.

In addition, Muizzu said he was seeking up to $500 million in international funding to protect beaches and coral as warming and rising waters threaten his low-lying nation.

Eighty percent of the Maldives is less than a metre (three feet) above sea level, making it one of the countries most threatened by rising sea levels linked to climate change.

The president-elect quoted a report that said 60 percent of corals had been bleached by rising water temperatures.

"Every coral has value, every waterway that is contaminated has a value," he said, insisting his country must be compensated for "every fish that dies due to global warming".

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Published: 15 Nov 2023, 08:31 AM IST
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