- The historical development of the Maldives on the global stage has often been viewed through the lens of the geopolitical rivalry between India and China.
- However, the recently elected Maldivian president, Mohamed Muizzu, has introduced a new dynamic by selecting Turkey as his initial foreign destination.
- This visit is anticipated to signify Turkey's growing influence in the region through its diplomatic ties with the Maldives.
Significance of the Maldives’ New Foreign Policy for Maldives and the Region
- Challenges the Traditional Narrative
- Maldives’ move challenges the traditional narrative that framed Maldivian international relations solely within the context of the rivalry between India and China.
- The decision to prioritise Turkey suggests a willingness to diversify diplomatic and strategic ties beyond the established partnerships.
- Reflects Evolving Nature of Global Power Dynamics
- Smaller states of the Subcontinent are becoming attractive geopolitical targets not only for the US, China, and Russia but also for middle powers like Turkey.
- It reflects the evolving nature of global power dynamics, where smaller nations are actively engaging in strategic manoeuvres to enhance their influence.
- Turkey’s Increasing Involvement in the Region
- Muizzu's visit to Turkey is seen as indicative of Turkey's increasing involvement in the region.
- This highlights a broader trend of middle powers seeking to assert themselves and play a more significant role in shaping geopolitical dynamics.
- Also, the visit is seen as a reminder of the rising geopolitical friction between Delhi and Ankara.
An Analysis of Changing Dynamics of Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean Region
- Recognition of Political Agency of Elites in Small States
- Small states in the Subcontinent are not perceived as pawns anymore in great power rivalries, such as those between Delhi and Beijing.
- The strategic value of smaller countries is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, the critical location of the Maldives, strategically positioned across the Sea Lines of Communication in the Indian Ocean.
- Local elites within smaller states have learned to leverage their strategic importance. They actively play external powers against each other for their own benefit.
- Abdulla Yameen, the president of Maldives from 2013-18, brazenly played the China card against Delhi, his successor, Ibrahim Solih, swung the other way with his India first policy.
- Muizzu rode the campaign of India Out to claim power in the last general elections held in September 2023.
- Growing Interests of Rising Middle Powers
- Another change in the regional environment is the fact that rising middle powers can now match the major powers in their ability to deliver favours to the local elites.
- Over the last decade, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all demonstrated the will and capability to act as external patrons.
- The support comes politically, economically, and militarily to competing political factions in various states located in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean.
Turkey's Evolving Role in Global Geopolitics, Particularly in Relation to India
- Historical Context with India
- Turkey's showed goodwill towards the Indian national movement in the early 20th century. However, post-Partition in 1947, this goodwill shifted predominantly towards Pakistan.
- Consequently, Ankara and Delhi have faced challenges in establishing a fruitful political relationship.
- The landscape becomes more intricate under the two-decade-long dominance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
- His influence has been marked by intensified diplomatic and political support for Islamabad, particularly on the Kashmir issue.
- An Underestimated Power in the Indian Strategic Discourse
- Turkey remains an underestimated power in the Indian strategic discourse despite its growing assertiveness in India’s extended neighbourhood, including Africa, the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Subcontinent.
- Erdogan has leveraged Turkey’s multiple identities to pursue his expansive geopolitical ambitions.
- Turkey is a founding member of the NATO alliance and straddles a critical location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
- It is a critical regional power in the Middle East, a self-proclaimed champion of Islamic and Turkic causes across Eurasia, and a dominant military power in the Black Sea and the Caucasus.
Turkey's Inroads into Indian Ocean Islands and Implications for India
- Maldivian President’s First Visit to Turkey is a Strategic Success
- Getting Muizzu to travel to Ankara on his first foreign visit underlines the success of Turkey’s growing inroads into the island states of the Indian Ocean. However, this is not a diplomatic success out of the blue.
- Last year, the Turkish foreign minister made the first-ever visit to Sri Lanka and the Maldives and laid the basis for deeper engagement.
- Turkey is Exploiting Muizzu’s Plan to Turn Maldives Away from India
- Turkey has now stepped in to seize the strategic possibilities opened by Muizzu’s plan to turn Maldives away from India.
- Erdogan rolled out the red carpet in Ankara for Muizzu, accompanied by his foreign, trade, defence ministers and other senior officials.
- Turkey’s ambition to draw the Maldives into its Islamic orbit was seen prominently in the visit.
- It remains to be seen if Ankara’s regional Islamist partners, like Doha and Islamabad, will follow Turkey into the Maldives.
- Defence Cooperation with One and Ending with Other
- Besides a bilateral trade agreement that was signed in their presence, Muizzu and Erdogan have reportedly discussed a range of other areas of cooperation, including defence.
- Turkey, with its flourishing arms industry, is well-placed to deliver significant military assistance to the Maldives as Muizzu pushes to end defence cooperation with India.
Ways Ahead for India
- India Must Remain Patient in Engaging with Maldives
- While near-term setbacks for India in the Maldives seem inevitable, Delhi must necessarily remain patient in engaging with the critical neighbour.
- One advantage that India has is India’s geographic proximity to the Maldives which is unlikely to change despite the frequent shifts in the Maldives’ foreign policy.
- More Engagement with the Domestic Politics of the Maldives
- The recent election in Maldives has shown that small changes in the domestic balance of power can produce major changes in the external orientation of Maldives.
- There is nothing to suggest that the current internal dynamic in the Maldives is immune to change.
- Therefore, India needs more and not less engagement with the domestic politics of the Maldives.
- India Must Work to Prevent Destabilisation of Maldives by Turkey
- India must work with its like-minded partners in the Gulf to prevent any potential destabilisation of the Maldives by Turkey.
- Saudi Arabia and the UAE have often been at the receiving end of Erdogan’s regional assertiveness and have a stake in preventing Maldives from being sucked into a Turkish sphere of influence.
- India Needs to Increase its Presence in Turkey’s Neighbourhood
- Delhi cannot limit its defensive strategy to South Asia. Turkey's growth is real, and its influence on the Indian subcontinent will only grow.
- To enhance India's position in the escalating geopolitical clash with Turkey, Delhi needs to take a more aggressive stance in Ankara's neighbourhood.
- Patience in diplomatic engagements is often crucial for building and maintaining positive relations.
- India might face near-term setbacks in its relationship with the Maldives but it must continue to engage with Maldives in the long run.