Maldives-China Cooperation: Boon or Burden? Examining the Potential Implications for India

Harsh V. Pant

Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu has made it clear that he has no intention of bringing Delhi-Male ties from the edge of a precipice. In fact, he has doubled down with a rhetorical escalation after his return from China. Even as his ministers were passing derogatory remarks against the Indian Prime Minister, Muizzu, during his five-day state visit to China last week, described China one of its “closest allies and development partners” and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects as “the most significant infrastructure projects witnessed in Maldivian history.”

After coming back from China, he launched a veiled attack on India by suggesting that “we [the Maldives] may be small, but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us.” And then came the ultimatum from his government that New Delhi withdraw its military presence from the archipelago nation before March 15.

In some ways, none of this should have come as a surprise. Muizzu had campaigned on an “India Out” platform and had been a votary of strong ties with China. After taking over the Presidency of the Maldives in November last year, he had called for the withdrawal of Indian troops which are around 80 in number, primarily positioned there for humanitarian and disaster relief as well as to maintain and operate two rescue and reconnaissance helicopters and a Dornier aircraft gifted by India to the Maldives. Muizzu has tried to mobilise his domestic political base by targeting India and has found support among Islamic hardliners.

In an apparent snub to India, he decided to first visit Turkey and then China for bilateral engagements. His government decided not to renew a pact for a hydrographic survey of the Maldivian seawaters with the Indian Navy and did not participate in the Colombo Security Conclave last December, in which it is a member state along with India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius.

During his China visit, the two nations signed a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership and Muizzu exhorted China to try to emerge as the number one market for the Maldives by sending more tourists. He underlined his administration’s commitment to the quick implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed with China, a pact that this predecessor President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was reluctant to implement. And at a time when a large part of the world is getting disillusioned with the BRI and China’s own economy is facing headwinds, Muizzu sang paeans to the BRI projects and their importance for the Maldivian economy.

Through all of this, New Delhi’s official reaction to Muizzu’s provocations has been sober and mature. In fact, it was at the meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Muizzu on the margins of the COP28 World Climate Action Summit in Doha that a high-level committee was formed to try to find a compromise. India kept its cool even when the ministers in the Muizzu government made derogatory remarks against the Indian Prime Minister and social media blew up. And recently External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar asserted that “politics is politics: and it cannot be guaranteed that in every country, every day, everybody will support us or agree with us”.

The strategic importance of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean makes Male significant for Indian interests. Historical and cultural ties between the two peoples further reinforces this relationship where India has come to the aid of the Maldives in the spirit of its neighborhood first approach.

And like all nations in South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean region, it is also well-accepted in New Delhi that China will be a key economic player for most nations. Often these nations will play Beijing against New Delhi and vice versa in order to get the best possible deals for them. Unlike China, India is often part of the domestic political landscape in most of its neighbours, thereby suffering from an inherent disadvantage.

Yet when it comes to the crunch, it is India which is the first responder. Sri Lanka’s economic crisis saw China maintaining a distance with India reacting fast and delivering help in real time. Muizzu has suggested that he is keen to reduce trade dependence on India by diversifying Maldivian food imports and overseas healthcare services. But many of the countries that he would seek to engage with are partners of India. It is India that has a web of partnerships across geographies that Muizzu would find difficult to ignore.

If the aim, however, is to mollycoddle China, then there are limits to what New Delhi can do to assuage Muizzu’s concerns. If 80-odd Indian soldiers are seen as a greater threat to Maldivian independence than 37 per cent share of China in Maldivian total debt, then it is for the people of the Maldives to take a call on Muizzu’s priorities. India would be much better off leaving the Muizzu government to its own devices and letting it learn the lessons that many other nations in South Asia and beyond have learnt about the cost of a Chinese embrace.

India’s strategic interests are unlikely to be affected much by bringing back its few soldiers from the Maldives but it is the long term trust between two close neighbors that Muizzu’s actions has undermined that would be the biggest casualty of this shortsighted approach to foreign policy.

Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

The article was first posted in NDTV as Opinion: India Should Let Maldives Learn The Cost Of A Chinese Embrace on January 16, 2023

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Swetha Shanker Pydimarry, a research intern at IMPRI.