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China and India compete for influence in the Maldives

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
April 23, 2024

The two Asian giants are vying for favor with the Indian Ocean archipelago state, where a pro-Beijing party just won a parliamentary election by a landslide.

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping
Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu, who is widely seen as pro-China, wants to shrink India's longstanding influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago stateImage: Liu Bin/Xinhua/IMAGO

The landslide victory of President Mohamed Muizzu's party, securing 70 out of the 93 seats in the Maldives parliamentary elections over the weekend, could mark a pivotal shift towards a pro-Beijing foreign policy in the country.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), led by former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who is widely perceived as a pro-India leader, held 65 seats in the previous parliament but won only 15 seats this time round.

Muizzu, who ran the "India Out" campaign, has made no secret about his anti-India and pro-China stance since he assumed office in November last year.

Cutback on Indian military operations

Within hours of taking up office, Muizzu had demanded the repatriation of Indian military personnel operating three aviation platforms in the Maldives by May.

Both countries had agreed to complete a withdrawal of 89 Indian soldiers and their support staff from the nation of 1,192 islands by May 10.

In March, 25 Indian soldiers deployed in the southernmost atoll of Addu left the archipelago as part of the withdrawal deal. Maldives also decided not to renew a 2019 agreement with India on a hydrographic survey of the island nation's waters.

Following Muizzu's Peoples National Congress (PNC) victory, China expressed its willingness to deepen the partnership between the two countries.

Beijing has been undertaking infrastructure projects and economic investments in the Indian Ocean region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

"China would like to work with the Maldives and carry forward the traditional friendship and cooperation in all fields, deepen our comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership and build a community of shared future between the two countries that benefits the two peoples," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing in Beijing on Monday.

Maldives seeks to reduce economic dependency on India

Some policy experts believe China has been leveraging its economic muscle to court Muizzu, but also warned that anti-Indian and nationalistic posturing could be counterproductive.

*Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu (R) addresses the media representatives after casting his ballot during the country's parliamentary election, in Male on April 21, 2024.
President Mohamed Muizzu secured 70 out of the 93 seats in the Maldives parliamentary elections this weekendImage: Mohamed Afrah/AFP/Getty Images

Gulbin Sultana, an associate fellow with the South Asia Center at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in India, said China's presence will increase in the short run, especially after Muizzu's China visit in January where both sides signed agreements in several areas of cooperation.

"However, even if the PNC and President Muizzu would like to reduce import-dependent Maldives' dependency on India, it will have to walk the tightrope given the country's debt burden and economic situation as well as the global geopolitical situation," Sultana told DW.

India has also extended financial aid for some infrastructure projects in the Maldives, but the country has requested that India restructure the debt. According to Sultana, the Maldives are approaching Turkey and Thailand as part of efforts to reduce dependence on India, particularly for food items and health facilities.

Strengthen friendship with India, or more Chinese aid?

P Sahadevan, a professor of South Asian Studies in India, says Maldivian politics today is split down the middle between those who favor better ties with India and those who seek more Chinese aid.

"Muizzu is going to be more vulnerable to the opposition's protest politics now, though he will play to China and the new nationalists," Sahadevan told DW.

"It all depends on how he manages the economy and how the main opposition MDP is going to take on the regime — a united opposition will be bad for him," Sahadevan said, adding that the president cannot antagonize India and cause total alienation.

"Maldives owes about $400 million (€374 million). The Chinese are also not going to be liberal. There is dependence on basic commodities from India and there will be economic compulsion to constrain Muizzu," added Sahadevan.

Tracking the tense relationship between India and China

Maldives faces increasing debt, low revenue, and depleting foreign reserves. The country has run on a budget deficit, while seeking assistance and grants.

"For tourism revenues and for other economic issues, Muizzu cannot ignore India for long," Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of International Studies, told DW.

"India also needs to make a mid-course correction by cultivating Maldivian constituents" and China's policies are "structurally predatory in nature and would result in a backlash in Maldives in the near future," he added.

Anil Wadhwa, a veteran Indian diplomat, believes the Maldivian president's latest political victory will only embolden him to pursue collaboration with China, which could be detrimental to the security of India in the long term.

"China will also try to consolidate more in the Maldives. India's options will get limited and it will be a struggle to keep the Chinese influence from growing," Wadhwa told DW.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11