By Krishn Kaushik
(Reuters) – The new Maldives president set a deadline on Sunday of March 15 for its giant neighbour India to withdraw all its troops from the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago nation.
The deadline was set shortly after the Maldives president, Mohamed Muizzu, returned from a state visit to China.
New Delhi has so far not commented directly on the demand.
HOW MANY INDIAN TROOPS ARE STATIONED IN THE MALDIVES?
Officials in both Male and New Delhi say that 77 Indian soldiers are posted in the archipelago country, known for its sun-kissed beaches and luxury holiday resorts.
There are also 12 medical personnel from the Indian armed forces.
WHY ARE THEY THERE?
India says the soldiers provide help with humanitarian aid and medical evacuations for the residents of the remote islands of the country.
India has given Male two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft, which are mostly used for marine surveillance, search and rescue operations and medical evacuations. The Indian troops manage these operations.
The first helicopter and crew started operations in the Maldives in 2010, when Mohamed Nasheed was president of the islands.
WHY DOES THE MALDIVES WANT THEM OUT?
India has traditionally enjoyed strong ties with the Maldives, which depends on New Delhi for essentials for its 500,000 people, including rice, vegetables, medicines, and humanitarian assistance.
In 1998, India sent troops to help then President Abdul Gayoom fight a coup attempt. The troops were withdrawn immediately afterwards.
But the dependence on India, and assertions New Delhi interferes in the Maldives’ domestic politics have raised concerns within the country.
Muizzu was elected president in November, riding on an ‘India Out’ campaign, in contrast to the pro-India policies of most of his predecessors.
He has called New Delhi’s influence a threat to the country’s sovereignty and pledged to remove Indian troops from Maldivian soil.
After Muizzu met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of COP28 in United Arab Emirates in December, the two countries launched negotiations to review their ties, including the presence of these troops.
HOW IS CHINA INVOLVED?
Rivals New Delhi and Beijing vie for influence in the Maldives given its strategic location southwest of India’s southern tip.
The islands sit along one of the busiest maritime trade highways in the Indian Ocean, through which nearly 80% of China’s oil imports pass.
For India, any potential Chinese military presence in Maldives would be considered a threat in its own regional back yard.
Recent attacks by Houthi forces on commercial shipping in the Red Sea have highlighted the vulnerability of maritime trade routes and the need to protect them.
China and the Maldives upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership during Muizzu’s state visit to Beijing last week.
The Maldives owes China $1.37 billion, or around 20% of its public debt, according to World Bank data.
(Reporting by Krishn Kaushik in New Delhi, Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo and Mohamed Junayd in Male; Editing by Neil Fullick)