The Maldives may be a small island nation, but that does not allow others to “bully” the country, President Mohamed Muizzu said on January 13, just as he arrived in Male, after a five-day state visit to China. 

He further noted in his media statement that the Indian Ocean “does not belong to one particular country.”, and that the Maldives “is not in anyone’s backyard”.  

Worsening ties

President Muizzu’s remarks, apparently alluding to India, come amid a growing strain between Male and New Delhi. Maldives-India bilateral relations have remained tense since Muizzu’s election in September, following his demand that Indian troops be swiftly withdrawn from the Maldives. Last month, his Cabinet decided against renewing a joint hydrographic survey initiative with India. Delivering the latest jolt to ties, three junior ministers in the Muizzu administration criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indians on social media, over his recent visit to Lakshadweep. Social media users in India, in turn, mobilised around a “Boycott Maldives” campaign threatening to impact the Indian Ocean archipelago’s vital tourism industry.  

The government in Male distanced itself from the controversial remarks and has since suspended the three deputy ministers. While President Muizzu has not directly commented on the diplomatic row so far — New Delhi summoned the Maldivian envoy earlier this week — his remarks on Friday are the first indication yet of his position. 

Meanwhile during his China visit, President Muizzu urged Chinese tourists to reclaim the top spot in arrivals, held by Indian visitors for two years now; oversaw the signing of 20 MoUs between the two countries, including for greater strategic partnership; and pledged further support for China’s Belt and Road initiative. In his comments to local media at the Velana International Airport, Mr. Muizzu also said China has agreed to begin negotiations on possibly deferring or easing repayment terms for its loans to the Maldives. 

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo