Maldives President Muizzu has a change of heart, calls India ‘closest ally’, seeks debt relief

Amidst strained relations, Muizzu extends olive branch to India, emphasizing close ties, financial cooperation, and ongoing projects for mutual benefit.

Livemint, Written By Jocelyn Fernandes (with inputs from PTI)
Updated23 Mar 2024
File image of Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu speaking at the COP28 last year
File image of Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu speaking at the COP28 last year(Reuters)

After a period of strained relations with India, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu has extended an olive branch, asserting India's crucial role as the Maldives' "closest ally", PTI reported. 

In a recent interview with local media, Muizzu emphasised the need for continued support from India, particularly in addressing the Maldives' debt burden.

"India will continue to remain the Maldives’ closest ally, there is no question about it," he told local Dhivehi language publication 'Mihaaru' in an interview — his first one since assuming office last November. Excerpts of the interview were also carried in sister publication Edition.mv, as per PTI.

At the close of last year, the Maldives was indebted to India to the tune of around $400.9 million, highlighting the significance of financial cooperation between the two nations.

Diplomatic Shift from Muizzu?

Muizzu's reconciliatory stance follows a period of tension marked by demands for the repatriation of Indian military personnel from the island nation in December 2023 and a perceived tilt towards China since assuming office in November of that year.

Acknowledging India's pivotal role in aiding the Maldives, Muizzu stressed the importance of ongoing projects facilitated by India and expressed gratitude for their contributions.

With the weight of substantial loans from India burdening the Maldivian economy, Muizzu appealed for leniency in loan repayment terms, seeking to ease the financial strain on his nation.

Strategic Importance in the Indian Ocean

India has been providing humanitarian and medical evacuation services to the people of the Maldives for the last few years using two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft. The Maldives' proximity to India and its position within vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) make it strategically important.

“The conditions we have inherited are such that there are very large loans taken from India. Hence, we are holding discussions to explore leniencies in the repayment structure of these loans. Instead of halting any ongoing projects ... to proceed with them at speed, so I see no reason for any adverse effects (on Maldives-India relations),” Muizzu added.

The conciliatory gestures towards India come ahead of parliamentary elections slated to be held in the island nation in mid-April.

Muizzu outlined plans for expedited projects and proposed the establishment of high-level committees to ensure swift decision-making, underscoring his commitment to enhancing bilateral cooperation.

Debt Management for Maldives

"Maldives has taken significant loans from India, which are heftier than can be borne by the Maldivian economy. Due to this, he is currently discussing with the Indian government to explore options to repay the loans to the best of the Maldives’ economic capabilities,” the news portal said quoting him.

Muizzu, who expressed hope that India would “facilitate debt relief measures in the repayment of these loans,” also said that he has conveyed his appreciation to the Indian government for their contributions.

“I also conveyed to Prime Minister Modi during our meeting (at the COP28) that I did not intend to halt any ongoing projects. Instead, I expressed my desire to strengthen and expedite them. I suggested a high-level committee be established, one designed for quick decision-making even in the bridge project to ensure speedy work. The same for the Hanimaadhoo Airport,” he added.

Managing Military Presence

Addressing concerns over the presence of Indian military personnel, Muizzu stressed the importance of national security while affirming a diplomatic resolution to the matter.

He added that this was “the only matter of contention” that arose with India and added that the latter has accepted the fact and agreed to withdraw the military personnel by May 10.

“It is not nice to dismiss or disregard aid from one country to another as useless. I have not taken any action or made any statements that may strain the relationship between the two countries. Even if they are troops of some other country, we will deal with them in the same manner. I have said so very clearly. It is nothing personal but rather a matter of our national security,” he added.

“Everything can be achieved through discussions and deliberations. That’s what I believe,” he said.

Shift towards China

Despite recent overtures towards India, Muizzu has pursued closer ties with China, evident in agreements signed during his visit to Beijing and subsequent statements regarding sovereignty in the Indian Ocean.

During his China visit, he signed a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership besides signing 20 agreements to assist Maldives infrastructure after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China also declared a $ 130 million grant besides promising to send more Chinese tourists to the tourism-dependent Maldives.

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