In his first public address since his electoral victory, President-elect Dr Mohamed Muizzu pledged to initiate efforts to remove all foreign soldiers, specifically Indian military personnel, stationed in the Maldives on his first day in office.

The decision, according to Muizzu, came in response to the wishes of the Maldivian people, who “have expressed their desire not to have foreign troops in the Maldives.”

Given the long-standing relationship between the Maldives and India—notwithstanding the “ambiguous nature of the agreements with the Indian government,” as the soon-to-be-ruling opposition faction has alleged—how realistic can this effort be?

According to Azim Zahir, a Lecturer of International Relations and Politics at the University of Western Australia, “the Maldives will unlikely be able to afford to substantively downgrade its relationship with India and the West, despite the nationalist rhetoric.”

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Zahir predicts that the president-elect’s attempts will be more symbolic acts, such as “removing Indian personnel operating two helicopters and an aircraft.” He notes that if New Delhi rejects this, a serious diplomatic row is likely, along with all the implications.

This appears to be the current trajectory. Within a week of these comments, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded, stating its readiness to engage with the incoming Maldivian government on all matters.

Though not directly addressing Muizzu’s intention to remove Indian military personnel, a move that could significantly impact India-Maldives strategic ties established in recent years, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi emphasised the importance of close cooperation between the two nations. 

“Our partnership with the Maldives has consistently focused on capacity building and collaborative efforts to address shared challenges and priorities. As neighbouring countries, we must work closely together to tackle regional issues like transnational crimes and humanitarian assistance disaster relief,” Bagchi said.

In his victory speech, Muizzu also raised concerns about the country’s economy, describing it as “enslaved.” Without naming a specific country, he revealed that half of the nation’s debt is owed to a particular nation—a dig at the outgoing government’s reliance on Indian loans for major development projects, much akin to Muizzu’s former government, which relied on China.

This rhetoric was addressed during a meeting between Muizzu and the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, Munu Mahawar. During this meeting, Muizzu discussed the “restoration of relations with India,” based on “respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty.” He also expressed hope that the Indian government would ease the terms for repaying loans. The Indian High Commissioner assured that Maldives’ independence and sovereignty would be “fully respected,” and that India was ready to negotiate concessional loan repayment terms.

Against the backdrop of this critical issue lies the strong bonds Muizzu’s former government—during the tenure of Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) President Abdulla Yameen Abdulla Gayoom—fostered with China.

Throughout his campaign, Muizzu distanced himself from PPM’s ‘pro-China’ label, stressing that his policies would be based on a “pro-Maldives” approach. This is perhaps why, instead of prioritising China and India for his first meeting with a diplomat, he chose to meet with the British High Commissioner.

Since then, he has reiterated this stance to local media, reassuring that his policies will foster links with China, India, the West, and the Middle East. The only concern, he noted, would be related to the country’s independence—including the presence of foreign troops and debt dependency on one country.

Muizzu’s comments about Indian military presence may be seen as an opening gambit in a complex diplomatic game. They could be designed to reset Maldivian foreign policy or even to gain leverage in loan negotiations. 

The Indian government’s measured response indicates that New Delhi values its strategic relationship with Male’ and is open to dialogue. It is too soon to gauge whether Muizzu’s plans will come to fruition or are merely political posturing.

The scenario raises multiple questions: Will Muizzu manage to balance relations with both India and China? Is his call for India’s military exit from the Maldives a signal for a significant foreign policy shift, or is it simply aimed at domestic consumption?