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Maldives Signals Tilt Toward China

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Maldives Signals Tilt Toward China

Yet, India is a powerful neighbor, one that plays a major role in the Maldivian economy. How long can President Muizzu sustain this path without taking steps to ease tensions?

Maldives Signals Tilt Toward China

Maldives’ President Mohamed Muizzu (2nd Left), his wife Sajidha Mohamed (L), Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd R) and his wife Peng Liyuan posing for photos during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, January 11, 2024.

Credit: X/Embassy of China in Maldives

President Mohamed Muizzu’s recent visit to China signals a significant shift in the Maldives’ foreign policy, one that is overtly tilted in favor of Beijing. The shift came amidst a visible fraying in India-Maldives relations in recent weeks.

In China, Muizzu expressed strong commitment to enhancing bilateral ties with Beijing. In addition to declaring that China would be the Maldives’ “closest development partner,”  he committed to implementing a free trade agreement, and agreed to elevate bilateral ties to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” This was reinforced by the signing of 20 Memoranda of Understanding to foster cooperation between the two governments in a wide range of fields.

During his state visit to China spanning January 8-12, Muizzu met with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang and held official talks. Earlier, he met with the regional leadership of Fujian province, where he attended the Invest Maldives Forum, aimed at bolstering business ties between the two countries.

This was Muizzu’s first state visit since assuming the presidency in November. His choice of Beijing as the first destination for a state visit signifies a notable shift from the traditional Maldivian presidential practice of heading to India for the maiden state visit. This departure from tradition is further underscored by the fact that before his trip to China, Muizzu had already undertaken an official visit to Turkey and attended COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. He is yet to visit New Delhi.

Muizzu’s visit to Beijing came amid escalating concerns in New Delhi, which perceives a gradual distancing from India by the Muizzu-led Progressive Alliance coalition government, which includes the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). This is a stark contrast to the foreign policy of the preceding Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)-led administration under Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (2018-2023), which prioritized close bilateral ties with India.

Muizzu’s approach appears to follow the footsteps of his now-estranged mentor, ex-President Yameen Abdul Gayoom (2013-2018) of the PPM, who had cultivated close commercial relations with China during his presidency and later initiated an “India Out” campaign while in opposition.

Significantly, the timing of Muizzu’s visit to China coincided with a bizarre diplomatic spat with India, emblematic of the new government’s foreign policy direction.

Since its transition to democracy in 2008, successive Maldivian administrations have alternated between New Delhi and Beijing as their favored partners, with both countries vying for strategic influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago. China aims to safeguard maritime routes essential for its energy supplies and to advance its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while India strives to maintain its preeminence in its immediate sphere of influence.

However, as an import-dependent small island state, the Maldives is acutely aware that it cannot afford to completely alienate either India, its closest and largest neighbor, or China, an economic powerhouse.

For instance, the “pro-China” Yameen administration took steps to ease tensions with New Delhi, while the “pro-India” Solih administration maintained strong commercial and bilateral ties with Beijing. Similarly, as president-elect, Muizzu initially aimed to alleviate concerns from New Delhi and Washington regarding a potential shift toward China by clarifying that the Maldives wished to remain neutral in global power struggles and to maintain positive relations with all countries.

Despite an intellectual understanding of these nuances, Maldivian foreign policy is often overshadowed and sometimes driven by domestically focused nationalist rhetoric, which occasionally borders on xenophobia and targets either India or China. In the lead-up to the 2023 presidential elections, former President Yameen attempted to stake his comeback on an “India Out” campaign, criticizing the Solih administration for being overly subservient to India and tolerating an Indian military presence in the Maldives. This military presence comprises about 88 personnel assisting in operating Indian-gifted aircraft used for search and rescue and disaster relief operations.

Yameen was subsequently disqualified from the 2023 presidential race due to a money laundering conviction, paving the way for Muizzu to emerge as a viable alternative candidate. Upon winning the presidency in the September presidential contest, Muizzu inherited the “India Out” movement’s legacy, even as he has largely sidelined Yameen. Muizzu’s stated determination to remove the Indian personnel remains a significant source of friction with India, which aims to retain them, presumably not only for their stated purpose but also for the strategic value they provide in observing China’s activities in the region.

Exacerbating tensions, senior officials from Muizzu’s government recently incited a diplomatic spat with India by mocking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep, a trip intended to promote local tourism in India. Some in the Maldives perceived this as a deliberate challenge to their own tourism industry. Three deputy ministers in Muizzu’s government resorted to a series of childish insults directed at Modi, even calling him a “clown.” Although the government officially distanced itself from these comments and nominally “suspended” the involved officials, the episode sparked a nationalist backlash in India, leading to multiple calls to boycott the Maldives on India’s social media.  This poses a significant risk to Maldivian tourism, given India’s role as a major tourist source.

It was amid these tensions with India that Muizzu embarked on a state visit to China. During this visit, Muizzu and Xi discussed several issues, including enhancing tourism cooperation, likely aimed at countering the effects of an Indian tourist boycott on the Maldives’ economy. Their discussions concluded with a Joint Communique that indirectly criticized New Delhi by condemning external interference in the Maldives’ internal affairs, a pointed allusion to India.

Upon his return, Muizzu adopted a more assertive stance in his public statements in regards to India. In a press conference, he declared that the Maldives’ small size does not grant any country the “license to bully it” and that the Maldives is not any country’s “backyard.” He further asserted that the Indian Ocean is not the exclusive domain of any single nation. This mirrors a prevalent saying among Chinese diplomatic circles that the “Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean.” Moreover, Muizzu has now set March 15 as the firm deadline for the withdrawal of Indian personnel from the Maldives, diverging from his earlier equivocations relevant to a specific date.

The stark contrast in Muizzu’s rhetoric toward India and China was further emphasized following the recent presidential elections in Taiwan. Shortly thereafter, the Maldives’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to the One China policy and denouncing any separatist activity in Taiwan.

Further, upon returning from his trip to Beijing, Muizzu announced that China has pledged $130 million in grant assistance to the Maldives and revealed new significant Chinese commercial investments in the country, including agricultural collaboration in Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF). UTF is an island hosting a coastal guard port and dockyard, constructed with Indian assistance, which the Progressive coalition had previously claimed to be an Indian military base while in opposition.

Despite Muizzu’s initial promises to maintain balanced foreign relations, his recent visit to China, followed by subsequent statements and announcements, indicate an unequivocal pivot toward Beijing at New Delhi’s expense, at least for the time being.

Yet, India remains the Maldives’ most powerful neighbor, in addition to being a major source of the country’s imports and holding much of the Maldives’ external debt. With that in mind, how long the Muizzu administration can sustain this path without taking steps to ease tensions remains to be seen.