The island nation has set a March 15 ultimatum for New Delhi to pull out its military amid diplomatic tensions
The Maldives has requested that India withdraw its troops stationed in the country by March 15, Abdulla Nazim Ibrahim, a senior aide to President Mohamed Muizzu, announced during a press conference on Sunday.
“Indian military personnel cannot stay in the Maldives. This is the policy of President Dr. Mohamed Muizzu and that of this administration,” Ibrahim said. The two sides have been engaged in negotiations on the matter for several months. The Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives met with Maldivian officials earlier on Sunday.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives later stated in a press release that both sides had “agreed to fast track the withdrawal” of India’s military personnel.
The Muizzu government had initially stated that India had 77 military personnel in the Maldives; however, Ibrahim updated the count to 88 on Sunday. Most of them were deployed to operate and fly two Dornier aircraft and a helicopter given to the Maldives by India for the emergency evacuation of people from the islands, according to Indian media reports.
The Maldives formally sought the removal of Indian troops in November after Muizzu assumed office as president. A pledge to remove any foreign military influence as well as balancing trade and reducing the Maldives’ Indian influence was part of his presidential campaign – in contrast with his predecessor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who cultivated close ties with New Delhi.
The Indian government confirmed that the first meeting of the India-Maldives High-Level Core Group had been held in the capital, Malé on Sunday, but refrained from commenting on the deadline set for the withdrawal of its military personnel.
The development comes days after several Maldivian government officials made comments on social media that were seen as derogatory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, prompting a backlash. The three deputy ministers were suspended and the Maldivian government distanced itself from their statements.
The development also comes days after Muizzu, who is considered pro-Beijing, returned from his first trip to China after becoming president. Beijing agreed to provide $130 million for the development of Malé. The two countries also signed an agreement on agricultural cooperation.
During his visit, Muizzu called China “one of the Maldives’ closest allies and developmental partners,” and remarked that his government would “end its dependence on one country for imported staple foods such as rice, sugar, and flour,” the president’s office said in a statement. Under a bilateral agreement, India supplies vital food items including rice, wheat flour, sugar, pulses, and other items on favorable terms.
“We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us,” Muizzu was quoted as saying by Maldivian media. “We aren’t in anyone’s backyard. We are an independent and sovereign state.”
Reflecting on the diplomatic spat on Saturday, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said, “politics is politics,” and it cannot be guaranteed that every country will support or agree with India every time.