Maldives tells India to withdraw troops by March as row deepens

The Maldivian president on Sunday told India to withdraw its nearly 100 troops by March 15, a day after returning from China where he signed a raft of deals. New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean archipelago to be within its sphere of influence but the country has shifted to China’s orbit, the Maldives’s largest external creditor. The March deadline was set during talks with Indian officials in the Maldives on Sunday, a top aide to President Mohamed Muizzu said, honouring the leader’s long-standing election pledge. “The president put forth this request at the meeting of the high-level committee between the two nations… the proposal is currently under consideration,” Muizzu’s Public Policy Secretary Abdulla Nazim Ibrahim told reporters. India has a deployment of about 89 personnel, including medical staff, to operate three aircraft to patrol the archipelago’s vast maritime territory. ‘Independent nation’ Muizzu came to power in September after pledging to evict Indian forces. On Saturday, after arriving in the capital Male, the president said that while the Maldives may be small, the country will not be bullied. “We are not a country that is in the backyard of another country. We are an independent nation,” Muizzu said. “This territorial integrity policy is one that China respects”, he said in the nation’s Dhivehi language, the Mihaaru newspaper reported. With Beijing and New Delhi tussling for influence, Muizzu was elected in September after pledging to cultivate “strong ties” with China. “We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us,” Muizzu said, in a final comment in English. He has denied seeking to redraw the regional balance by bringing in Chinese forces to replace Indian troops. Muizzu’s trip to China this week was his first state visit since becoming president. China’s state broadcaster CCTV said deals included “infrastructure construction, medical care and health care, improvement of people’s livelihoods, new energy sources, agriculture and marine environmental protection” agreements. ‘Diminish reliance’ Tensions with New Delhi flared after three of Muizzu’s junior ministers reportedly called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “clown” and a “terrorist” in since-deleted social media posts earlier this month. Bollywood actors and some of India’s cricket greats responded with calls for compatriots to boycott their southern neighbour and instead book their next holidays closer to home. Tourism accounts for nearly a third of the Maldives’s economy, with Indians making up the largest share of foreign arrivals. Muizzu said the Maldives will also slash reliance on India for healthcare and medicine, adding more countries where citizens needing government-paid health treatment abroad can go. Most eligible citizens currently get treatment in India, as well as small numbers in Sri Lanka and Thailand, officials said. But Muizzu said the government would “diminish reliance on… a select group of countries”, without specifically mentioning India, and would now support treatment also in the United Arab Emirates. Most pharmaceuticals in the Maldives are currently imported from India, and Male will now seek to import medicines from the United States and European nations, he said. At the same time, Muizzu, the former capital’s mayor, suffered his first electoral setback as his party’s candidate lost the vote to replace him. Adam Azim of the former ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which is seen as more pro-Indian, won the seat.