MALÉ (Maldives): Maldives President-elect Mohamed Muizzu has vowed to expel Indian troops after taking office later this week, but said AFP does not want to redraw the regional balance by involving Chinese forces.
“Maldives are too small to be embroiled in geopolitical rivalry,” the president-elect said in an interview about the strategically located archipelago in the Indian Ocean. “I’m not too interested in bringing Maldivian foreign policy into this.”
Muizzu’s success in the September election hinged on a long-running campaign against India’s excessive political and economic influence in the Maldives, and in particular his promise to expel Indian forces.
But he said he would not allow China – or any other country – to replace them, and dismissed reports that he was closer to Beijing. He insists he is only “pro-Maldives”.
“We will work with all countries, including India, China and all other countries,” the 45-year-old leader, who will be sworn in on Friday, said at his home in the capital Male.
Known for its pristine beaches and secluded resorts as one of the most expensive holiday destinations in South Asia, the Maldives has also become a geopolitical flashpoint.
Global east-west shipping lanes pass the country’s chain of 1,192 small atolls scattered about 800 kilometers (500 miles) along the equator.
Muizzu was seen as a proxy for pro-China former President Abdullah Yameen, who steered the country firmly into Beijing’s orbit until his defeat in 2018.
Muizzu said he hoped to begin formal negotiations with New Delhi on the withdrawal of about 50 to 75 Indian personnel, a sensitive issue in the campaign.
“The people of the Maldives did not vote for me to allow any military presence in the Maldives,” added the British-educated civil engineer.
“That’s why we are talking to the Indian government to remove them, and I’m sure we can do it in a peaceful and democratic way.”
Muizzu said his mandate was to remove a unit of Indian security personnel deployed to operate three aircraft donated to the Maldives to patrol its vast maritime territory.
“I am not demanding that Indian troops leave our country to make way for any other country to bring its troops here,” he said.
Regional power India considered the Maldives, with its roughly 380,000 Sunni Muslims, to be in its sphere of influence, but was concerned about China’s growing footprint during Yameen’s administration.
New Delhi has a history of entanglements with Malaya, including the deployment of troops to thwart a 1988 coup attempt.
“It is very important for the Maldives to put our interests first … we also want to cooperate with all countries, have a good friendly relationship, a cordial, open relationship,” Muizzu said.
The party appointed Muizzu after Yameen was barred from running for office following a criminal corruption conviction during his five-year tenure as the country saw a rapid Chinese-financed construction boom.
Muizzu, a former housing minister, is credited with implementing Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including the construction of 7,000 apartments and a landmark bridge linking the main island of Male with the nearby airport island of Hulhule.
“We are in a very strategic location where many maritime traffic routes pass through our country,” he said, adding that he is inviting foreign investment to develop ports and logistics and establish a tax-free zone. .
Muizzu said he was counting on the completion of an ambitious expansion of the international airport to boost the economy, which has been hit by heavy debt and a decline in tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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