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The Maldives has given India until mid-March to withdraw its troops from the archipelago nation, as its new pro-China president draws closer to Beijing.
The notice follows a five-day visit by Mohamed Muizzu to China on his first foreign trip since taking office. Muizzu won last year’s election after campaigning on an “India Out” platform.
Indian and Maldivian officials held talks in the capital Male on Sunday in which “both sides expressed willingness to intensify co-operation and agreed to fast-track the withdrawal of Indian military personnel”, the Maldives ministry of foreign affairs said, adding that the talks were ongoing and the two sides would meet again “at a mutually convenient time”.
Ahmed Nazim, policy director at Muizzu’s office, told AP and Reuters that the Maldivian delegation proposed the removal of Indian troops by March 15 on the president’s behalf.
India has about 75 troops in the Maldives and operates two helicopters, used in part for medical evacuations, in addition to operating radar equipment and naval patrols on its territory.
Muizzu’s call for withdrawal comes against a backdrop of tensions between New Delhi and Beijing over their disputed border and respective influence in India’s backyard.
The Maldives’ push for India to pull out its small contingent has in recent weeks sparked heated online commentary,
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 4 posted pictures of himself meeting residents, strolling on beaches, and snorkelling in India’s Lakshadweep islands, off the coast of India’s southern Kerala state.
In a post on X, the Indian leader described Lakshadweep as “mesmerising” and declared: “For those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list.”
The post angered some in the tourism-dependent Maldives, who saw Modi’s intervention as an attempt to divert visitors to Lakshadweep. India was the Maldives’ largest source of visitors in 2023.
Three Maldivian deputy ministers posted demeaning comments about Modi and India’s tourism potential, including remarks calling him a “clown” and a “puppet of Israel” because of the close ties with the Jewish state he has cultivated since taking office. The three officials were suspended for their remarks.
Online supporters of the powerful Indian leader called for a boycott of Maldivian tourism. EaseMyTrip, an online booking platform, declared it was suspending all bookings to the Maldives under the slogan “Nation First, Business Later”.
Muizzu said at the weekend that no country had “the licence to bully us”, without mentioning India by name. “The Indian social media bullying and pressure from the external affairs ministry has not changed the strategic calculations in Male,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank. “China has been drawn in and could end up as wielding even greater influence in India’s strategic backyard.”
During his visit to Beijing, Muizzu met his counterpart Xi Jinping and other officials. The two sides agreed to elevate their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic co-operative partnership” and work together in areas including tourism.