Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
India's diplomatic standoff with the Maldives is just another example of how restless its South Asian neighbors are. While it is convenient for India to blame China's increasing influence in the region, the growing negative public opinion toward India in many South Asian states reminds the Modi government that it is high time to reflect on its traditional big brother style and find fair, equal and equitable ways to deal with its relations with neighboring states.
New Delhi finds it difficult to win hearts and minds of neighboring states despite its strong position and all the rhetoric and practices it engages in regarding the Neighborhood First Policy. The focal point between the two neighbors is the presence of Indian troops stationed in the island country. As a matter of fact, there is no tradition of Indian troops being stationed in the Maldives. For example, in 1998, Indian troops were sent to help then president Abdul Gayoom fight a coup attempt, after which they immediately left.
In November 2023, the Maldives government officially disclosed the presence of 77 Indian military personnel stationed within Maldivian territory. As a way to deliver the promises made during the election, the newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu urged India to pull out its troops as soon as possible for the sake of safeguarding Maldivian sovereignty. The request was met with cold reluctance from his Indian counterpart.
The Maldivian government announced that, after mutual negotiations, India has agreed to withdraw its troops by May 10. However, it can't breathe a sigh of relief yet as the statement by India's Ministry of External Affairs does not mention any commitment to withdraw its troops.
The diplomatic drama will likely continue. On the sea, Maldivian fishing vessels received marine law enforcement from the Indian coast guard within the Maldives' economic zone last week, which unsurprisingly led to protests from the Maldivian side.
From now until May anything could happen, and it is safe to predict that more pressure measures from India are on the way. In the newest budget plan for the year 2024-25, the Modi government reacted by decreasing development assistance to the Maldives from Rs 7.7 billion ($93 million) to 6 billion, demonstrating its unhappiness toward a nationalist government being elected by Maldivians. As a comparison, in the previous fiscal year of 2023-24, the amount was increased from Rs 4 billion to Rs 7.7 billion by the Indian government to encourage the trend of India First represented by then Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, rather than India Out in the undergoing island nation's election.
The reaction can be taken as a sound reflection of Indian public emotions toward the rebellious actions of the Maldives. Prominent Bollywood stars and other public figures are advocating a corresponding boycott Maldives movement on Indian social media vis-à-vis the India Out trend among the Maldives. The differences lie in the fact that the latter was driven by many years of bullying by a big brother and the former from nowhere but a frustrated ego they deemed done by a state as small as the Maldives.
Under test also includes India's sustained pursuit of a leading role among the Global South countries. By hosting two virtual Voice of Global South Summits, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vows to promote the collective voices of the Global South on key international economic issues and further South-South cooperation for development. Any attempts to bully the Maldives into Delhi's will run against India's pledge.
PM Modi needs to bear in mind how an assertive Jawaharlal Nehru lost his moral authority among the Non-Aligned (NAG) states when he determined to resort to force measures rather than friendly negotiations and mutual concessions in dealing with border issues with China, another NAG state. As an unquestionable member of the Global South, the Maldives has all the sympathy and empathy from its Global South allies and any sovereign state has equal rights to safeguard its welfare and development rights regardless of its size and geography. States will only follow the leadership of those major powers who match their actions with their words.
The author is an associate professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University.