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The Maldivian Tilt Towards China is a New and Irksome Reality for India

President Muizzu on Sunday formally asked India to withdraw its military from the island nation by 15 March.

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China’s Indian Ocean footprint was visibly enhanced with the elevation of its ties with the diminutive Maldives to that of a 'strategic partnership' during the five-day (8-12 January) state visit of the newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu to Beijing. On top of that, Muizzu on 14 January formally asked India to withdraw its military personnel from the island nation by 15 March.

New Delhi, which has had a robust bilateral relationship with Male for the last five decades, is on the backfoot, exacerbated by a tenacious anti-India sentiment in the Maldives, most recently manifested in the intemperate references to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The social media outburst in India and the call to boycott the Maldives as a holiday destination is indicative of the speed and intensity with which domestic sentiments can muddy critical foreign policy issues.

The prevailing simmer in India and the discord with the new government in Male is likely to be aggravated by Muizzu's visit to China.

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Why Muizzu’s Visit Matters

The joint statement issued on 11 January in Beijing noted, "The two sides share the view that as changes of the world, our times and history unfold, the strategic significance of China-Maldives relations has become more prominent. The two sides agree to elevate China-Maldives relations to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, better leverage the political guidance of high-level engagement, expand practical cooperation between the two countries in various fields, strengthen collaboration on international and multilateral affairs, enhance the well-being of the two peoples, and work toward a China-Maldives community with a shared future."

The symbolism of Chinese President Xi Jinping receiving his Maldivian counterpart in Beijing is significant at many levels.

This was the first state visit hosted by China in 2024 and the fact that Beijing chose to prioritise the archipelagic nation has considerable strategic importance by way of Beijing’s resolve to bolster its presence in the Indian Ocean and steadily acquire greater political and maritime leverage – from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa (China’s first overseas military base) to Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

A glance at the map of the Indian Ocean will illustrate the manner in which the location of the Maldives provides a crucial link for China to maintain and sustain its presence in one of the more vital Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC).

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How the Maldives Can Support China’s Maritime Goals

As a major trading nation, China is highly dependent on these SLOCs in the Indian Ocean for its exports and imports. More critically, China imports considerable quantities of hydrocarbons, and in 2023, the daily average was 11.4 million barrels of crude oil per day (million barrels per day). This figure is expected to increase throughout the year with Beijing seeking to increase its economic growth after a post-Covid slump.

Most of this oil is shipped from the Red Sea/Persian Gulf through the Malacca Strait towards China.

This anxiety about China’s SLOC-related hydrocarbon dependency and the vulnerability to disruption (by the United States) was first voiced by former President Hu Jintao in 2003, when he dwelt on the 'Malacca dilemma’ and the need for Beijing to assuage this in a calibrated but resolute manner.

This was a period when China was yet to acquire the maritime and naval profile it now has. It may be recalled that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships did not transit through the Malacca into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Forays into the IOR were few and far between.

However, the Somali piracy attacks of 2007-8 provided the catalyst for China to send its naval ships into the IOR, and since then, there has been a continuous PLAN presence in this region.

The strategic partnership with the Maldives will help Beijing realise its long-term maritime aspirations – unfettered access to the IOR and being able to maintain a sustained and substantive presence in these waters.

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Impact of the ‘India Out’ Campaign in the Maldives

This aspect has relevance for India in particular and the other major interlocutors such as the US and Japan among others. It is evident that China has internalised the tenets of maritime strategy.

Given the extent that it is hobbled by the political geography of the western Pacific, it is commendable that Beijing, which exudes the strategic culture of a land power, has displayed steely resolve in its rapid transformation towards becoming a Two-Ocean Navy (Pacific and Indian) – an exigency that seemed unlikely a mere 20 years ago.

The Maldives, like other South Asian nations, has a divided polity, wherein major political parties have tended to play the China card to India’s detriment, and this was seen in Sri Lanka and Nepal in recent years.

In the September 2023 election, the Maldivian PNC (Peoples National Congress) pursued an 'India Out’ campaign and won by a margin of 54 per cent with the Opposition garnering 46 per cent of the vote.

Muizzu's preference for China over India is a new and irksome reality for India and the next government in Delhi will have to objectively review and re-wire its bilateral relationship with Male and the local population. It is not that there is no goodwill for India in the Maldives. Many citizens recall the critical help provided by Delhi over the years - from dealing with a mercenary coup attempt (1988) to the tsunami rescue effort (2004), and the more recent drinking water crisis that was averted by timely action taken by India.

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New Trends in Warfare at Sea

The anti-India amber lights have been flashing in the Maldives for more than a decade. Regrettably, Delhi was not as nimble and astute as it ought to have been in preempting such trends. The island nation has a predominantly Muslim population and since 9/11 and the global war on terror, the Maldives has had a higher incidence of Islamic radicalisation despite its small population (5.21 lakhs).

In the light of recent trends, this is potentially disturbing. What the Houthi rebels have done to disrupt global shipping is illustrative of new trends in warfare at sea, that is, hybrid violence and a potent non-state entity with revisionist political and religious motivation. A lethal cocktail.

Smaller regional states will seek to pit India and China against each other, and the political party in power may act in a manner that is inimical to Delhi’s abiding interests. Preventing this from becoming an intractable domestic binary, be it in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, or Nepal, is an Indian foreign policy imperative.

India’s aspirations towards achieving a major power status and its credibility as a dependable partner revolve around the extended South Asian region, and the IOR is integral to this template. Delhi must overcome its traditional sea-blindness. The Maldives' tilt towards China is a bellwether.

(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Narendra Modi   Xi Jinping   China-Maldives 

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