MALÉ, Nov 17 — The Maldives is set to inaugurate today a president who has vowed to cultivate “strong ties” with China and to expel Indian troops deployed in the strategically placed Indian Ocean archipelago.
Mohamed Muizzu, 45, was elected in September as a proxy for a pro-China predecessor who is jailed on corruption charges. He will be sworn in at the Republic Square park in the congested island capital Male.
A spokesman for the People’s Majlis, or parliament, which is hosting the inauguration, said the body expects high-level representation from both China and India, as well as Bangladesh, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka.
Known as one of the most expensive holiday destinations in South Asia, with pristine white beaches and secluded resorts, the Maldives has also become a geopolitical hotspot.
Global east-west shipping lanes pass the nation’s chain of 1,192 tiny coral islands, stretching around 800 kilometres across the equator.
China will be represented by State Councillor Shen Yiqin as a special envoy of President Xi Jinping, who visited the Maldives in 2014 when Muizzu’s mentor Abdulla Yameen was president.
The Maldivian media had reported for days that India’s President Droupadi Murmu was expected to attend, but New Delhi announced it would send Minister of Earth Sciences Kiren Rijiju instead.
Muizzu has vowed to deliver on his election promise to send home Indian troops, but told AFP earlier this week that his intention was not to upend the regional balance by replacing them with Chinese troops.
‘Too small to be entangled’
“Maldives is too small to be entangled in geopolitical rivalry,” the president-elect said in an interview. “I am not very much interested to engage the Maldivian foreign policy in this.”
As the mayor of Male, Muizzu told the Chinese Communist Party a year ago he wanted stronger ties with Beijing should his Progressive Party win the 2023 elections.
“We look forward to returning to government in 2023, with President Yameen at the helm, to script a further chapter of strong ties between our two countries, both domestically and internationally,” Muizzu said at the time.
Yameen was barred from running in this year’s election because of a criminal conviction and an 11-year jail term for corruption. He nominated Muizzu as his proxy.
Muizzu, a British-educated civil engineer, has attempted to walk a balance between regional rivals India and China.
“We are going to work together with all the countries, India, China and all other countries as well,” he told AFP.
Muizzu said he hoped to begin negotiations with New Delhi on the withdrawal of an estimated 50 to 75 Indian military personnel — deployed to operate three aircraft gifted to the Maldives to patrol its vast maritime territory.
India has traditionally considered the Maldives, with its population of about 380,000 Sunni Muslims, to be within its sphere of influence. But during the presidency of Yameen, who borrowed heavily from China for construction projects, New Delhi worried about Beijing’s expanding footprint.
India has a history of entanglements in the Maldives, including the deployment of soldiers to thwart a 1988 coup attempt.
But Muizzu also faces an even greater challenge: his nation one of the countries most threatened by rising sea levels linked to climate change.
Eighty per cent of the Maldives is less than a metre above sea level. — AFP