Maldives matters: India’s moving to foil Chinese designs

In seeking to protect its own strategic interests in the vast Indian Ocean Region, New Delhi has to constantly walk on eggshells.
In seeking to protect its own strategic interests in the vast Indian Ocean Region, New Delhi has to constantly walk on eggshells.


  • With China making diplomatic inroads, New Delhi’s hosting of the Maldivian foreign minister amid domestic elections and despite strained ties is evidence of the strategic importance of nations in the Indian Ocean Region. New Delhi is shoring up its influence for good reason.

It’s a measure of the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) archipelago of the Maldives that India recently chose to host its new foreign minister, Moosa Zameer, despite the hurly-burly of Lok Sabha elections. With the Maldives’ President Mohamed Muizzu-led government already in China’s tight embrace, and the consequent turbulence in bilateral ties, India can ill-afford to cede further space to Beijing. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar clearly spelt out India’s strategic concerns to Zameer, telling him that being close neighbours, the development of bilateral ties is based on “reciprocal sensitivity."

Such straight talk was required, as the pro-China Muizzu has already given New Delhi much grief, not just with his anti-India rhetoric, but also his administration’s decision to ask India to replace with civilians its 77 military personnel posted there, in charge of two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft, even though these operated under the Maldivian flag and with directions from the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF).

Muizzu rode to power as Maldivian president by running an “India Out" campaign, citing the issue of sovereignty, which found traction in the country, especially among conservative voters. Muizzu has, however, not yet repealed a presidential decree issued during the tenure of his predecessor Ibu Solih banning that campaign. Perhaps because it is clear that he will need to deliver growth and development, for which India remains an important partner, regardless of all the tall promises China might make.

New Delhi would have also conveyed to Malé its displeasure over its decision to not renew a hydrography agreement with India, while signing a defence pact with China that involves training the MNDF and supplying non-lethal defence equipment. For New Delhi, both are red lines, much like Chinese involvement in the Indian telecommunications sector and digital identity projects in India’s neighbourhood.

In seeking to protect its own strategic interests in the vast IOR, New Delhi has to constantly walk on eggshells. For, political leaders in the region’s island states have learnt to play the two Asian giants against each other. In Sri Lanka, for instance, India was cold-shouldered, while China thrived during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential tenure. They also know how to whip up anti-India sentiment by playing the sovereignty and nationalism cards to win elections.

While New Delhi-Malé relations are currently strained, the New Delhi-Colombo relationship is currently thriving. Having provided financial assistance to Sri Lanka as it battled an economic collapse after the covid pandemic, India has been quietly working to contain China by bolstering its strategic foothold in the island nation.

Colombo recently gave its nod for India to develop the strategically-located Kankesanthurai port in northern Sri Lanka. Barely 100km away from the deep sea port of Karaikal in Puducherry, it will provide vital connectivity between the two nations. In addition, an Indo-Russian joint venture recently won the contract to operate the Mattala airport built with Chinese loans in Hambantota. Sri Lanka is still trying to negotiate a restructured loan with China’s Exim Bank for the airport, which has been a commercial failure. Both these projects will give India a vital foothold in the region where both Sri Lanka and the Maldives are on board China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Also read: China’s growing threat via debt trap diplomacy

Unlike China, loans extended by India do not leave their beneficiaries in debt traps. The Maldives, for instance, is still reeling under the $1.3 billion loan it took from China during Abdulla Yameen’s presidential tenure from 2013 to 2018. At present, nearly 30% of Maldives’ external debt is owed to China, while it’s only 10% in the case of India.

The inflated cost of Chinese-executed projects and the opacity that marks them, however, has not deterred IOR nations from availing them to build infrastructure. Sri Lanka, for instance, found itself unable to repay the commercial loan it took to develop the Hambantota port. The island nation’s biggest bilateral debt is to China, placed at $7 billion, while it stands at $1 billion to India. Unable to match Beijing’s financial resources, New Delhi has chosen to woo IOR nations through its policy of Security and Growth for All (SAGAR), warning them not to fall prey to Chinese debt-trap policies.

At a time when naval forays by China are rapidly increasing in the region, the day is not too far when a Chinese aircraft carrier will sail into the IOR, given that Beijing has been regularly deploying warships, submarines and ‘spy’ vessels to the region for well over a decade.

India too has increased deployments to countries in the region. It regularly sends warships to conduct joint patrols and surveillance of the vast exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of countries like the Maldives and Seychelles. India’s commissioning of a naval base, INS Jatayu, in the Lakshadweep islands in March this year will also add to the country’s strategic heft in the IOR.

With the joint inauguration of an upgraded jetty and airstrip on the Agaléga islands of Mauritius earlier this year, India now also has an outpost in the western Indian Ocean, a crucial addition to its China containment strategy. Even so, New Delhi cannot afford any let up in its battle for influence in the IOR.

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