Maldives refreshes China ties but that’s not all why India must tread carefully

Newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu is seen as being pro-China. (AFP)
Newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu is seen as being pro-China. (AFP)

Summary

The new administration in Malé seems intent on breaking the Maldives’ identity as a small island state dependent on its larger neighbour for security, and asserting the country’s ability to choose its own path without external pressure or interference

As the world devolves from the unipolar world led by the US in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War to an international order more in flux–not yet multipolar and not quite bipolar either–small states are gaining outsize ability to shape their own destinies. 

Long used to being ignored, many small countries are increasingly capable of playing rival states against each other and expanding their diplomatic space. Maldives is a classic case in point.

With newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu being seen as pro-China, the India-Maldives-China triangle appears simply to be continuing a cyclical phenomenon of successive presidents in recent years alternating between being pro-India or pro-China. 

Muizzu’s predecessor, Ibrahim Solih, was seen as pro-India. Solih’s predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, was viewed as anti-India and pro-China, and his predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, as leaning towards India. 

These characterisations of the leaders of a sovereign nation might be useful shorthand for those engaged in high geopolitics but they are also both crude and unsophisticated descriptors and inadequate to describe changing tides in global politics.

Muizzu did not make his first official foreign visit to New Delhi as tradition demanded, but despite his pro-China tag, Beijing was not his first destination either. Instead, Muizzu went in a different direction altogether, travelling to Türkiye followed by a visit to the United Arab Emirates and only then to China.

By doing so, Muizzu was also asserting Maldives’ identity as a Sunni Muslim state. He refused to be bound by his country’s identity as a small island state heavily dependent on its larger neighbour for security and nor did he think he had only a China card to play.

While Muizzu has called for the exit of the tiny Indian military contingent in the Maldives, he has been smart enough to not let this turn into an India-versus-China tussle, and nor is he planning on leaving his country defenceless in the process. 

Malé has signed an agreement for military drones with a Turkish company in order to patrol the country’s extensive exclusive economic zone–one of the tasks that India’s military presence is also engaged in. Given the nature of the issue and the sensitivities involved, this approach makes sense.

Elsewhere, though, the Maldivians seem willing to play hardball. On an issue less sensitive to India like tourism, Maldivian ministers were willing to directly attack the Indian Prime Minister over a local political event. This they did because they assumed that post-Covid, more bang-for-the-buck tourists from China could easily fill any vacuum created by the absence of Indian tourists.

Indeed, the growing closeness of Maldives-China ties cannot be denied. There are active efforts on both sides to raise the profile of the relationship–the Chinese elevated the relationship to a ‘comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership’ during Muizzu's visit, from the ‘comprehensive friendly and cooperative partnership’ of Yameen’s time.

This level is at least as high as, if not higher than, the category of India-China ties, which in 2005 was described as a ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’. The fact that 20 bilateral agreements were signed during the Maldivian president’s visit to Beijing holds significance as much in the number of agreements signed as in their content.

In their joint statement, the Maldives also repeatedly acknowledged each of the new spinoffs of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)–namely, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative.

This was already a step forward from the visit to China a month earlier of new Maldives Vice-President Hussain Mohamed Latheef, when at the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation he left out any mention of BRI. He, nevertheless, did bat implicitly for active Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region.

Meanwhile, New Delhi probably underestimates both the seriousness with which its neighbours view developments in Indian domestic politics and the possible concerns they might have with the religious or cultural nationalist turn in its foreign policy. 

In 2022, the unthinking celebration of International Yoga Day by the Indian High Commission in Malé resulted in a near riot in the stadium where the event was being held. Protestors held that the event disrespected the Islamic faith of the country’s population, and it led to a revival of anti-India sentiments in the islands.

As everywhere, politicians in the Maldives have used foreign affairs, including resentment against India, for electoral gain. The issue, however, is not so much the degree of truth in the accusations against India but the desire of a small country to be able to choose its own political path, economic model, and foreign policy without external pressure and interference. 

India will have to rejig its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy to better acknowledge these realities even as it seeks to protect the space for democracy, adherence to international law, and regional peace and stability.

 

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