India’s relations with Maldives is on the rocks. After President Mohammed Muizzu swept into power in November last riding on an “India Out” campaign, the relationship has steadily been going downhill. The Muizzu government’s diktat to India on Sunday to withdraw troops by March 15 is the latest salvo in what is fast becoming a fractious relationship between the two nations.

It’s worth examining the seriousness of the matter. In order to do that it is necessary to see why Maldives matters to India and the world. After all, it’s such a tiny country, the second smallest country in the world with a population of 600,000. Eighty per cent of the national revenues come from tourism. A whopping 1.8 million tourists went there last year. The 200,000 Indians who went there last year make up the largest group. India is also a source of emergency drinking water supply. In the past, India has been an all-weather friend. Maldives, despite its minuscule size, commands clout because of its 800 km long exclusive economic zone and its strategic location. Its largely uninhabited 35 islands are perfect for setting up different types of military and civilian installations. If required, they can be used as stationary and unsinkable aircraft carriers — unsinkable, until the rising sea level claims them eventually.

So from an international geostrategic view, Maldives is enormously important. Maldives was an Indian ally for over five decades. But that alliance has been under strain since China started wooing the Maldives 20 years ago. Like Sri Lanka some years ago, Maldives, too, has moved under the Chinese umbrella, becoming a part of the BRI. This is bad news for India whose current political choices make it easy for rivals to exploit dormant anti-Indian sentiments in Islamic countries in the neighbourhood. Their politicians with an eye on the main chance are the beneficiaries.

What we need now is mature diplomacy from India that will see the relationship through without serious damage until the next change of government in Maldives. The tasteless comments from Maldivian ministers and the subsequent outrage in India in the last fortnight after Narendra Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep have only complicated an already troubled relationship after Muizzu moved into power. India is in an unenviable position, reminding one of the relationship with Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa when the island nation moved into China’s orbit. The consequences of that disastrous move for Sri Lanka are now evident. It can only be hoped that the Muizzu government will learn from the Sri Lanka experience and tone down the anti-India rhetoric and actions. Geographical realities cannot be wished away even if Muizzu were to funnily believe that the Indian Ocean is not India’s backyard. India is really the “911” help, as one Maldivian Opposition member remarked. It is never smart to antagonise your friendly neighbour who’s the first to help you in a time of need.