Maldives asks India to withdraw its military in tilt toward Beijing

NEW DELHI — The Maldives has asked India to withdraw its troops by March 15, news outlets in the island nation reported Sunday, as a weeks-long spat that mushroomed across social media escalated against the backdrop of India and China’s struggle for influence in the Indian Ocean.

India, the regional power, has for years stationed about 80 military personnel, vessels and aircraft in the Maldives for carrying out surveillance and rescue operations. Relations between India and the Maldives have been strained since Mohamed Muizzu became the Maldives president in November after a charged election campaign in which he promised to push “India Out” if he won.

The March 15 deadline was proposed by the Maldivian delegation during the first meeting between high-level Indian and Maldives government representatives in Malé on Sunday, according to local media, citing senior officials in Muizzu’s office.

Official statements released by both countries after the meeting did not mention a deadline, but the Maldives Foreign Ministry said “both sides expressed willingness to intensify cooperation and agreed to fast-track the withdrawal of Indian military personnel.”

India’s statement said they were seeking a “mutually workable solution to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medevac services to the people of Maldives.”

The latest development marks a new low in ties between India and the Maldives after decades of close cooperation. In 1988, the Indian army thwarted an attempted coup in the Maldives and rescued the then-president in one of the most celebrated operations in Indian military history.

Now, the tiny country, with a little more than half a million people, is the latest site in the geopolitical competition between India and China, two Asian giants that have also vied for influence in Sri Lanka, another island nation.

During his campaign, Muizzu vowed to eject India’s military. He visited China on Jan. 8 on his first state visit, in a departure from tradition. Historically, every democratically elected president of the Maldives has chosen India for his first state visit abroad as an acknowledgment of the close ties between the two countries. India is its second-largest trade partner and sends the highest number of foreign tourists to its many scenic islands.

In a joint statement put out Thursday during Muizzu’s visit, China extended its support to the Maldives “upholding its national sovereignty, independence and national dignity.” Some 20 agreements were signed between the two countries over five days, and the visit raised concerns in India about Muizzu’s perceived tilt toward Beijing.

India’s military presence in the Maldives became a bone of contention between the two countries in 2018, too. But tensions fizzled out after a change in the Maldivian leadership at the time.

On Saturday, India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar downplayed the tensions between the two countries and blamed domestic politics for the prevailing anti-India sentiment in the Maldives.

“People of that country generally have good feelings toward India and understand the importance of having good relations,” he said.

The diplomatic tensions have been inflamed by social media. Last week, nationalist Indian social media accounts called for the boycott of the Maldives as a tourist destination after three deputy ministers in Muizzu’s government made derogatory remarks about India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on X, formerly known as Twitter. At least one Indian travel company suspended bookings to the Maldives after the controversy.

“We have put nation first over business,” Prashant Pitti, the co-founder of Indian online travel booking firm EaseMyTrip, said in a TV interview. “This is a proxy war between India and China. Those derogatory remarks were part of this.”

The government of the Maldives promptly suspended the three ministers and distanced itself from their remarks. But on social media, several Indian celebrities continued the calls for boycott and used the hashtag “#ExploreIndianIslands” in posts asking fellow Indians to visit Indian islands such as Lakshadweep instead.

The controversy led Muizzu to speak out against attempts to “bully” his country, without naming India.

Gerry Shih contributed to this report.

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