The new Maldives president, Mohamed Muizzu, says he will remove foreign military personnel from the country, reaffirming his support for the departure of a small Indian force from the Indian Ocean archipelago, where India and China vie for influence.
At his inauguration on Friday, Muizzu – who is seen as more pro-China than his predecessor Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who had sought closer ties with India – said that he would pursue trade with both nations.
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“Lines of independence and sovereignty will be drawn clearly. The foreign military presence will be removed,” said Muizzu from the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
“I will keep friendships with foreign countries. There won’t be any enmity with countries close and far away,” he added.
Regional powerhouses China and India have both sought to exert greater influence in the archipelago. Muizzu beat Solih from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in September. Solih had pursued an “India first” policy, and the polls were seen as a referendum of sorts.
Muizzu had criticised Solih’s trade policy as slanted in favour of India and campaigned on a promise of greater economic ties with China. Analysts said his victory is likely to be seen as a setback for Indian influence in the region.
“Seen from the zero-sum lens that often drives great power competition, Beijing is a big winner from this election,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia director at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, previously told Al Jazeera.
“Muizzu’s campaign plank was not only about strengthening ties with Beijing, it was also about aiming to undermine India by calling for an end to any Indian military presence in Maldives. This is music to the ears of Beijing,” he added.
India has about 75 military personnel stationed in Maldives, an island group that is home to about 521,000 people.
While Muizzu has said he would work to balance out the country’s economic relations between India and China, relations remain largely cordial with the former.
After the election, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi said in a social media post that his country “remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship”.
Both India and China sent high-level representatives to attend Muizzu’s inauguration.