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Mint Explainer: Why the new Maldives President skipped India for his first official visit

Mohamed Muizzu, the new president of the Maldives, has broken with tradition by travelling to Turkey for his first official visit. This has attracted attention since previous leaders of the island nation have chosen India as their first port of call, given the close relationship between the two countries. Mint breaks down the issue.

What is the situation?

Mohamed Muizzu, who took charge as president of the Maldives earlier this month, chose to visit Turkey for his official visit. Newly elected Maldivian leaders have generally chosen to visit India first as it has long been the security and trade partner of choice for the island nation. However, Muizzu has made a point of projecting a more balanced foreign-policy position.

He recently asked India to withdraw its military personnel in the Maldives, and the latest development is being seen as another push to court new partners and diversify the country’s diplomatic relationships.

What is Turkey’s relationship with the Maldives?

Experts point out that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to raise his country’s profile in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh and Afghanistan. He has also intervened on matters of crucial interest to India, such as Kashmir. With Erdogan pushing a pan-Islamic foreign policy, inviting the Maldivian president to Turkey makes strategic sense. The two sides discussed trade and defence cooperation during Muizzu’s visit.

What does this mean for India?

The development is another reminder of how much India’s strategic backyard has changed. While countries like the Maldives were once seen as firmly in the India’s sphere of influence, matters have since become more complicated. The increased presence of the United States and China in the Indian Ocean has made it clear that India’s neighbours are much sought after as geopolitical allies. India’s approach to these countries will have to change accordingly. Turkey’s overtures show that even middling powers located half a world away can woo key Indian partners.

How will India react?

New Delhi has made clear that it would prefer to continue strong engagement with the Maldives. The country is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and India will not want to risk its position as a leading partner. Faced with increased pressure from China, India has responded by, among other things, funding big connectivity projects. In short, India has focused on increasing its attractiveness as a partner. 

However, it is not above showing displeasure. When Muizzu invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his inauguration he sent a cabinet minister instead, which seen as a diplomatic snub. 

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