The Maldives’ China Tilt: Implications for Regional Security

Harsh V. Pant

Last week, the Maldives and China signed a defence pact “on China’s provision of military assistance gratis to the Republic of Maldives”, underlining Male’s continued shift away from India under the government of President Mohamed Muizzu. This not only marks a notable shift in geopolitical alignment for the Maldives, but it also provides China another opportunity to extend its military presence in the Indian Ocean region.

This agreement is another indication that the Muizzu government remains keener than its predecessors to tilt towards China, but, coupled with its public ultimatum to India that its minuscule military presence should be terminated immediately, it also underscores a new strategic reality in the Indian Ocean region, one that could alter regional dynamics, prompting New Delhi and other global powers to reassess their policy options in the strategically vital maritime space.

An Opaque Agreement between Maldives and China

The Maldives-China defence agreement itself remains shrouded in secrecy. The only known aspect is that the Chinese military would be providing free “non-lethal” military equipment and training to the island nation. Beyond that, no specific details about this pact are in the public domain. For a government that has often talked of the presence of 77 Indian soldiers and 12 medical personnel from the Indian armed forces in the Maldives in conspiratorial terms, it is indeed strange that it would be entering into a defence pact with a country like China, which is known for opaque arrangements.

For Muizzu, Male’s sovereignty gets strangely affected when dealing with a transparent democratic India but not with a Communist authoritarian China. The long-term implications of Male’s China pact, of course, will be borne by the people of the Maldives.

That Muizzu would reconfigure his nation’s foreign policy was evident from the very beginning when he made India the centrepiece of his election campaign. His ‘India Out’ pitch made him the darling of Islamist forces as well as Beijing, whose designs on Male were effectively foiled by Ibrahim Solih.

Yet, New Delhi made a conscientious outreach to Muizzu once he assumed the presidency, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself taking the lead. It did not work as was expected, though what was not expected was the kind of malevolence that the Muizzu administration has been showing towards India. It is natural among close neighbours to have disagreements, but to convert them into public disrespect is neither desirable nor prudent.

Risk Of More Turbulence

The consequences of this behaviour will be far-reaching not only for New Delhi-Male bilateral ties but also for regional geopolitics. The defence pact itself will be viewed seriously by India as China’s growing foothold in the Indian Ocean region has long been a matter of concern for Indian policymakers. That China’s maritime presence will grow in the Indian Ocean region has long been a given. But for regional nations to have a one-sided approach when it comes to Indian concerns is an entirely different matter and one that is likely to only lead to more regional turbulence.

Muizzu’s pronounced China tilt has already divided the polity and society in the Maldives. Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed publicly stated last week that the “people of Maldives are sorry” and underscored New Delhi’s mature policy response to Muizzu’s adversarial approach. Instead of using his election victory to bring a divided nation together, Muizzu seems to have doubled down on his divisive agenda. The long-term implications will naturally be deleterious for the island nation.

But it has also exposed the Maldives to wider geopolitical tumult, which is shaping much of the rest of the world. It is not only New Delhi that will take due cognisance of the Chinese toehold in the country – other major players are also going to refashion their approach towards Male, given the centrality of the Indian Ocean region as the key faultline in the global politics of today. India enjoys strong partnerships with major global and regional players, and that will impact the future foreign policy trajectory of Male in more ways than one.

India Looking At Other Options

India, meanwhile, is already looking beyond and reconfiguring its own approach. The Indian Navy has already commissioned its new naval base, INS Jatayu, on Lakshadweep’s Minicoy island about 130 kilometers north of the Maldives last week to enhance its “operational surveillance” capabilities.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Mauritian counterpart Pravind Jugnauth jointly inaugurated a new airstrip and jetty on the Mauritian archipelago of Agaléga, allowing India to station and deploy large aircrafts in the island. New Delhi’s ties with other Indian Ocean littoral states remain strong, and newer regional arrangements, such as the Colombo Security Conclave, are gathering pace. Though Male decided to give last year’s meeting a skip, Mauritius became a member in 2022 and Bangladesh and Seychelles have been attending it as observers.

For India, the Indian Ocean maritime space is indeed critical, and while troubled ties with the Maldives underscore a temporary setback, New Delhi’s options are not limited. But the Muizzu government’s inability to forge a balanced approach in its foreign policy might jeopardise Male’s own strategic autonomy amidst the roiling waters of the Indian Ocean.

Harsh V Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and vice-president for studies at Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

The article was first published in NDTV as Muizzu’s China Tilt Hurts Maldives Far More Than India on March 11, 2024.

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

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.

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  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Harsh V Pant

    Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and Director of Research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

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