Maldives had a bitter and deeply divisive Presidential election in September 2023. Mohamed Muizzu of the People’s National Congress and sitting Male mayor finally won the election and became the eighth president of Maldives. During the electioneering, it was evident that Muizzu wanted to make foreign policy a key part of his election pitch. In the normal course, countries don’t take major foreign policy outlooks into domestic elections. But perhaps, Muizzu felt a shrill anti-India pitch would have a polarising impact on the otherwise very docile Maldivian population.
China currently has around 6-8 naval units operating in the Indian Ocean and Gulf, whereas it wants a quantum boost in its force levels and probably deploy an aircraft carrier in the future.
The Maldives was already struggling with several deep challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic. An October 2023 World Bank report on the economy highlighted high government debt, external inflationary pressures, over-dependence on the tourism economy, challenging job opportunities and high cost of service delivery as five critical problems. Now the sudden change in political flavour and its apparent impact on the Indo-Maldivian relationship will undoubtedly see heavy clouds in the coming days.
Knowing China’s desperation towards increasing its visibility in the Indian Ocean region, its push in Maldives is not entirely unexpected. China deeply desired to gain some firm footing, to at least appear a relevant force in the region which is otherwise heavily dominated by its strategic regional rival India. China has done it in Ecuador, Zambia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya, Laos and its Maldives now.
A 2017 paper published by the National Defence University of the United States, identified China’s four-pronged strategic vision for, increasing its energy security, improving regional stability and amassing strategic influence in Eurasia while avoiding direct competition with the United States. It currently has around 6-8 naval units operating in the Indian Ocean and Gulf, whereas it wants a quantum boost in its force levels and probably deploy an aircraft carrier in the future. All this would need comprehensive logistics management and regional support and this is what China is pushing for.
India is not only a regional heavyweight but also the closest neighbour to the Maldives lying just 325 nautical miles NE to it, (it’s like travelling from Delhi to Jodhpur). Maldives India Connect is truly historical, it was part of the Chola Empire from 1010–1153.Post 1965 Maldivian independence India was among the first few to recognise it. During British time its communications and finances were looked after by India, even today SBI is the largest bank in Maldives. Both share a deep cultural bond, as the first settlers in Maldives are believed to be Indian Tamilians.
Apart from history and geography the economics of the relationship is an even bigger eye-opener, India has provided liberal grants to Maldives. Like Bhutan, India caters for regular budgetary allocations to Maldives in its national budget. In March 2022 it allocated $2.6billion as an aid package to tide over difficult economic conditions. India also continues to invest in Maldivian infrastructure, health and communications with programs like Greater Male Connectivity, Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital and the inclusion of Maldives in India’s surveillance and security grid.
India being the resident naval power has made crucial contributions in ensuring security in the high sea, directly supporting the maritime sovereignty of island nations like Maldives.
India has always come to the rescue of this country at the most difficult times. The 1988 Maldives coup attempt was swiftly neutralised within hours by Indian forces; during the 2014 Male drinking water crisis India immediately flew its heavy-lift aircraft with bottled water while the Indian Navy sent ships with desalination plants to tide over the drinking water crisis. The COVID crisis saw India not only despatching vaccines on priority but also its medical teams, a gesture reserved for very few close friends. India being the resident naval power has made crucial contributions in ensuring security in the high sea, directly supporting the maritime sovereignty of island nations like Maldives.
When Maldives expressed fears of terrorists targeting its island resorts, India worked to bolster Maldivian surveillance capacity further linking them with India’s Integrated Coastal Surveillance System. These are very crucial steps for bolstering security against threats that would completely destabilise a small tourism-dependent economy. It would be hard to comprehend, why would a country choose to discard close affection and compassion built over the years.
China has sensed the opening due to the fierce leadership fight among Maldivian political elites and it intruded with an anti-India narrative. Maldivian political leaders would definitely be better informed as to why they choose an India-China narrative for electioneering. But now having opted for that they are faced with the truism of welcoming an unwelcome power at the cost of time-tested friendship.
Lasting diplomatic efforts always happen below the radar, surprising to see Maldives choosing presidential interactions with media and its foreign office briefings to communicate matters of such a sensitive nature. It points towards two likely probabilities, either Maldives’ diplomatic endeavours are being handled in a very casual way or it is deliberately putting an India and China pitch hoping to extract the ‘best deal’ for itself. Granting Maldivian diplomats’ due professionalism in the conduct of national affairs, the second probability appears more realistic.
The Maldives would need a very professional and more fundamental environmental scan to visualise where it is actually heading.
However, if that is the case Maldives needs to be extremely cautious and be prepared for a rather worst-case scenario. It must again remind itself it is attempting to deal with two very powerful nations. Irrespective of their mutual difficulties, India and China don’t have a shred of misperception about each other’s capabilities and to an extent it also breeds a certain amount of reciprocal admiration. Both countries have well-established and strong diplomatic muscles. The attempts by third countries to pitch them against each other are nothing new for them either.
The Maldives would need a very professional and more fundamental environmental scan to visualise where it is actually heading. There are very high chances that it may lose one completely and the other one treats itself more as an untrustworthy basket case. International relationships are never one against the other. Maldives’ closest friend to date India is an example which they can learn a lesson from. Global challenges and the entire geopolitical matrix might have gone upside down but India never lost connect with its time-proven friends even though it closely interacted with other global powers.
The China Factor
It is very apparent, that all these developments have been actively supported by China. If China indeed pulls it off it will definitely be a major diplomatic score for them. The Chinese success rate has thus far remained unimpressive though. They tried out this template with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal all without much cheer for them. Maldives is their latest, and makes for an interesting case but for India, these are routine diplomacy.
Global diplomatic conduct is a fine art mastered by very few, where economic heft or muscle power is never overbearing, it is always with mutual respect. It’s the sovereign identity of the nation which is respected not the geographical size or its forex reserves. Only when very close understanding has evolved over considerable time that countries recognise each other’s sensitivities and try and accommodate fair concerns. However, in the case of China, none is true. Its international dealings have been marred by a bullying attitude, aggressively pushing into the domestic affairs of host countries and eventually manipulating the local agendas.
Maldives needs to introspect on burning bridges with its closest neighbour and a lasting friend.
A Short Fling
Maldivian leadership can benefit from the lessons of neighbouring Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar all attributed to China’s unsolicited investments and geopolitical ambitions rather than becoming a case study by itself. Most of the countries embraced by China have become living examples of shattered hopes and destroyed dreams. China’s propaganda machinery continues to dole out the rosy spectre of change of fortune by nightfall. The temptation looks too lucrative for some dispensations who end up sleep-walking into the trap.
Interestingly the Indian foreign office’s very limited reaction towards such ‘news’ emanating from Male indicates towards slow-go approach it has adopted. It’s a mature method indeed giving time to Maldivian leadership to settle down. Issues of national consequences are better decided with ‘collective wisdom’ and not necessarily by the government of the day. For the Maldives, India had and will stand by the side and Maldivian people know this.
China must also be keeping track of the bad names its projects and ventures have been receiving in different parts of the world. It must not have forgotten their Myanmar or Vietnam lessons which now hold very close relations with India. The fact of the matter is; that Maldives needs India more than probably the other way round! For CCP policy-makers, it would be really good to remember that the game of turning over friends can be played by others as well. Maldives needs to introspect on burning bridges with its closest neighbour and a lasting friend. Someone who has rescued it from every crisis, else, it may prove to be a historical blunder after all!