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15 January 2024, WION

Maldives’ pivot to China

A tiny nation of half a million people, Maldives has drawn enormous attention from the media, diplomats and informed public since Muizzu’s election last September. The interest has only risen after the recent diplomatic row with India and Muizzu’s increased bonhomie with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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On January 10, President Mohamed Muizzu of Maldives and Chinese President Xi Jinping held the much-awaited meeting in Beijing and witnessed the signing of 20 bilateral agreements. This was a clear indication of their shared desire to deepen the bilateral relationship, as was attempted during the presidency of Abdulla Yameen (2013–18).

A tiny nation of half a million people, Maldives has drawn enormous attention from the media, diplomats and informed public since Muizzu’s election last September. As he prepared to embark on his first visit to China, Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer received a call from Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterating the U.S.’ commitment to strengthening cooperation with the Maldives, “a key partner in a free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”

This was followed by a dramatic turn of events signifying new strains in Maldives’ relations with India. In a reaction to the derogatory language used by three junior ministers of Maldives against India following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep, Bollywood and sports celebrities unleashed a firestorm on social media with the trending hashtag “Boycott Maldives.”

Just before he departed for China, Muizzu suspended the offending ministers, bowing to internal political pressure and mollifying critics in India. Then, the focus shifted to his extensive five-day tour of China which has produced significant gains.

The totality of these developments reflects an intensification of India-China rivalry in South Asia as well as the larger strategic contestation between the U.S. and China in the Indo-Pacific region. Each major player has an impressive arsenal of means to assist Maldives in attaining its sustainable development goals as well as complicating its life. The central question is: can Maldives, a small and politically fractured nation with immense strategic significance, navigate its path through the turbulence that lies ahead?

From the long presidency of Abdul Gayoom (1978–2008) to the tenure of the last president, Ibrahim Solih, India and Maldives enjoyed close and cooperative relations. The only exception was the tenure of Abdulla Yameen. In terms of political consultation and coordination, development and economic cooperation, emergency assistance, cultural exchanges, and people-to-people relations, the two countries worked closely, unhindered by any bilateral dispute.

As the head of the division handling relations with the Maldives in the Ministry of External Affairs in the early 1990s, I vividly recall how India had to send everything from sand, steel and cement to X-ray machines and trained personnel to establish the country’s first major public medical facility – the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. Inaugurated in April 1995, it earned tremendous goodwill for India as a trusted friend.

Over the years, Indian assistance has covered projects big and small, including high-impact community development facilities and the Greater Male Connectivity Project worth $500 million (which is currently underway). Bilateral trade has risen from $156 million in 2013 to $501 million in 2022.

Last year, India became the country sending the highest number of tourists to Maldives. A regular programme of cooperation including capacity building and disaster management assistance exists. The presence of 75 Indian military personnel, who man and operate an aircraft and two helicopters for medical emergencies, was deliberately misconstrued for electoral purposes last year. This shaped the ‘India Out’ campaign, masterminded by political elements close to former president Yameen, which culminated in Muizzu’s victory.

Since its formation last November, the Muizzu government has taken several steps causing concern in New Delhi. At the outset, it requested India to withdraw all its defence personnel from Maldives. Then, it refused to renew an MoU in hydrographic surveys concluded by the previous government. It also failed to participate in the meeting of national security advisers of the Colombo Security Conclave, held in Mauritius in December 2023.

Breaking from tradition, the president chose to visit first Türkiye and then China, as dates for a visit to India could not be worked out. However, he had a brief meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dubai, UAE, on the sidelines of COP28 when the two leaders agreed to set up a joint task force to devise how bilateral cooperation may be expanded. Before this could be translated into action, the controversy over unjustified criticism by Maldives’ junior ministers erupted.

A few days earlier, President Muizzu stated, in his interview with a major national daily, that his government was ‘pro-Maldives’ and not ‘anti’ any country.

“We respect and trust India,” he said but asserted that if Indian troops were not withdrawn from Maldives disregarding the people’s will, “the future of democracy in the country will be in peril.”

As a former British protectorate and a member of the Commonwealth, Maldives maintains friendly and mutually beneficial relations with the UK. However, the U.S. is more aware and active in ensuring that Maldives does not come under the excessive influence of China, considering the ongoing strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. During Blinken’s telephone conversation with Foreign Minister Zameer, the two sides discussed “the importance of defence cooperation, economic growth, combating the climate crisis, and democratic governance.”

At the same time, Washington treats India as the main player in managing Maldives. The interests of the U.S. and India converge to keep Maldives a functioning democracy, with ample agency of its own. Yet when it comes to South Asia as a region, the U.S. also shows marked divergences with India, as evident in the case of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The degree of this divergence over Maldives is unclear at present.

The key highlights of President Muizzu’s visit to China are listed below:

I. The two governments finalised an Action Plan for building a “Comprehensive, Strategic, Cooperative Partnership” for 2024–28.

II. Of the total 20 agreements signed, the list of domains covered includes digital economy, green energy, Blue Economy, human resource development, tourism, economic development policy, investment cooperation, Belt and Road Initiative, and cooperation between official media networks.

III. These plans may be backed by the considerable financial largesse of China. An agreement on ‘Grant Assistance’ was also signed but the quantum of financial assistance was not disclosed.

In his interactions with the Chinese side, President Muizzu urged it to intensify the flow of Chinese tourists to Maldives and air connectivity between the two countries. China should regain its (pre-Covid) No. 1 position in Maldives’ tourism market, he suggested.

The Chinese media has portrayed the Muizzu visit as “a pivotal moment” in China-Maldives relations.

With a successful and substantive visit to China, President Muizzu has made his choice clear: China may now be the principal partner of Maldives. Other partners may be expected to accept this overarching reality and adjust accordingly.

India will need to assess its options carefully. Will its decision be moulded by the sentimentalism of “Boycott Maldives” expressed in ‘the digital public square’, or by professional advice that prefers pragmatism, patience and policy calibration?

As to the China-U.S. feud in the Indo-Pacific, this round has gone to the former. The latter, preoccupied elsewhere, has suffered a setback.

In the coming weeks, the story will unfold further. Therefore, watch this space.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies and former ambassador.

This article was first published by WION.

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