Many important Sea Lines of communications (SLOCs) pass through the Indian Ocean which makes the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) very important. Therefore, great powers, including India and China, are working to increase their presence in the region. Due to the strategic location of Maldives in the Indian Ocean, India and China are both vying to increase their influence in Male.
In the Maldives, a clear division can be seen among the main political parties related to India and China. Therefore, which country, either India or China, will enjoy greater leverage over Male can be judged by which political party is in power. The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), considered as pro-China, and the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), considered as pro-India, were the two main contesting political parties in the recent presidential election of Maldives. In the election, people voted for Mohamed Muizzu of the PPM and ousted the incumbent president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the MDP.
Increasing Chinese Influence In Maldives
Beijing, intending to extend its muscle in the Indian Ocean, started sending its navy into the Indian Ocean in 2008 in the name of an anti-piracy mission and gradually it has increased its influence in the region. For Beijing, the safety and security of SLOCs in the Indian Ocean are very important as about 80% of its crude oil passes through this region1.
Maldives, which is famous for its beautiful beaches and resorts and regarded as a vacation destination for the rich and famous, also holds strategic importance for at least India and China. Male’s foreign policy, which was considered tilted towards India, changed its course after former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (2013-2018) came into power, thanks to Chinese economic overreach. Due to the very friendly political environment in Male towards Beijing, in 2014 it joined the Chinese Maritime Silk Road (MSR)- a part of the Chinese BRI- and later on in 2017, signed a free trade agreement with Beijing2. However, the FTA failed to ratify in the People’s Majlis (Maldives’ Parliament).
During the Presidentship of Gayoom, Beijing gained huge momentum in investing in different infrastructural projects in Maldives such as the Male-Hulhule bridge, national museum, Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, housing projects etc. However, when one superficially looks at these investments, it seems no harm but critics argue that it is none other than the ‘debt to equity’ policy of China. To support their argument, critics often cite the example of Hambantota port of Sri Lanka which was leased to China for 99 years due to high debts.
In 2018, the Gayoom government fell and Solih was elected as the president of Maldives. As Solih was considered pro-India, the Chinese momentum of increasing influence in Male was reduced. Now looking at the latest presidential election of 2023, the winning of a pro-China candidate can be a hurdle to increase India’s influence or to check increasing Chinese influence in the region.
Why does the Maldives matter to India?
India considers South Asia and the Northern Indian Ocean as its area of influence. The proximity of the Maldives to India and the passing of important SLOCs nearby Maldives increases the importance of Male to India. The increasing presence of any outer power (especially non-friendly countries) in the region is a direct challenge to New Delhi’s influence in the region as well as a threat to the country.
The increasing Chinese presence in the Maldives and its ‘debt to equity’ policy is not taken well by India. MEA Dr S Jaishankar had warned countries in the Indian Ocean region to be cautious of “hidden agendas” in unviable projects or unsustainable debt, in an apparent reference to China’s “debt trap” diplomacy. Further, New Delhi Considers China is encircling India by its ‘string of pearls’ strategy of which Maldives is an important pearl.
During the Gayoom government, it was reported that about 70% of the external debt of Maldives was owed to Beijing. It raises fears about how easily males can be pressurised by Beijing and some even compared Maldives’ situation with Sri Lanka and Pakistan. After 2018, during Solih’s presidency, New Delhi was more relaxed. However, Male did not reverse Abdul Gayoom’s decision related to China, but New Delhi also got breathing space in the Maldives.
In Maldives, people are divided into two viewpoints. One is supporting the ‘India out’ campaign led by former president Yameen (who is currently in jail) of PPM and its coalition parties and the other is the ‘India first’ campaign led by former president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
After the 2023 presidential election, Mohamed Muizzu stated that people had voted against the ‘foreign troops’, referring to Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives. It shows his anti-India and pro-China stance. Whereas Maldivian speaker and former president Mohamed Nasheed, who used to be considered pro-India, has stated in an interview with The Hindu that the new Maldivian government will not be anti-India or pro-China3. It will be in continuation of the current foreign policy of the country.
The swearing-in-ceremony of Mohamed Muizzu will be held on 17 November. It is expected that Male’s foreign policy can tilt towards Beijing and this action will not be surprising for New Delhi. But what will be its actual course is yet to be seen.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)
- Baruah, D. M., Labh, N., & Greely, J. (2023, June 15). Mapping the Indian Ocean region. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/06/15/mapping-indian-ocean-region-pub-89971#:~:text=With%20nearly%2080%20percent%20of,important%20motivator%20for%20China’s%20presence.
- Grain. (n.d.). China-Maldives: MSR deal sealed, free trade deal in the making. bilaterals.org. https://www.bilaterals.org/?china-maldives-msr-deal-sealed
- Haidar, S. (2023, October 6). New Maldives President won’t be anti-India or pro-China: Mohamed Nasheed. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/new-maldives-president-wont-be-anti-india-or-pro-china-mohamed-nasheed/article67388747.ece