By Channon Heenan
The waters of the Indian ocean have long been a stage for political manoeuvring, and today it is no different. The Maldives, India’s tiny island neighbour, have shaken up regional geopolitics. Once anchored in a firm pro-India policy stance, the Maldives is now looking to orbit Beijing instead of New Delhi, setting the stage for a seismic shift in the broader dynamics of the Indian Ocean. This article delves into the historic ties between the Maldives and India, explores the factors behind the nation’s warming relations with China, evaluating China’s role in this realignment and examines the geopolitical and economic importance of the Maldives and the Indian Ocean area for China.
A CLOSE HISTORY?
India was among the first nations to recognise the Maldives’ independence in 1965, establishing a diplomatic mission there in 1972, at Malé. They solved their maritime boundary dispute in a friendly and diplomatic manner in 1976, and ever since have shared close ethnic, linguistic, cultural, commercial, and religious ties. Indeed, India has been a leading development partner of the Maldives, establishing many leading institutions such as the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital and the Faculty of Engineering Technology.
Furthermore, India has aided Maldives wherever required. India was the first country to rush aid and relief to the Maldives in the wake of the tsunami that struck on December 26th 2004. India also provided financial assistance both in the wake of the tsunami and after tidal surges struck the Maldives in 2007.
Politically, India and the Maldives have nurtured close bilateral ties, and almost all Indian prime minister shave visited the island nation since the inception of diplomatic relations. Former Maldivian Presidents such as Maumoon Abdul Gayoom visited India during their presidencies.
Despite the close ties between the two nations and the spirit of close financial and infrastructural co-operation, relations have soured recently, with China benefitting.
WANING TIES WITH INDIA
India-Maldives ties suffered greatly under the Yameen Abdul Gayoon
Administration while Chinese influence grew in the island nation. In 2012, an agreement signed with the Indian company GMR was abruptly cancelled and given to a Chinese company instead in 2014, marking a shift in ties.
The Yameen government undertook various anti-India measures including asking India to remove the two helicopters it had gifted to the Maldives in 2010 and 2011 and refusing to renew the visas of their pilots. In 2018, the Maldives refused India access to its biennial military training exercises, another low point in previously excellent military ties.
The most recent development in this relationship is the recent election of the strongly pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu, who ran on an ‘India out’ platform. He has given the 75 Indian military personnel and two helicopters currently stationed in the Maldives a deadline of 15 March to leave. The pro-Chinese president signed 20 agreements with Beijing in January on his state visit there, including ones on climate, agriculture, and infrastructure, further cementing the reorientation of the Maldives towards China.
China has taken the economic and political advantage in the Maldives, investing in mega infrastructure projects, enhancing trade ties, promoting tourism, and making India a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Under the Yameen government, China’s ties with the Maldives grew in leaps and bounds. China invested massive amounts of money in the island nation, such as US$ 830m in a bid to upgrade the Maldivian airport, a 25-storey apartment complex and hospital and relocating a major port. Chinese projects account for up to 70% of Maldivian debt - an estimated $1.3 billion. This debt scheme comports with the wider Chinese strategy to create debt in other countries to gain political leverage over them – a strategy often seen with the BRI.
Economically China is making bigger steps in the Maldives than India, and in the wake of a recent uptick in anti-India rhetoric in the Maldives, China is seen as the more attractive partner.
WHAT'S IN IT FOR CHINA
The Maldives plays a massively important geopolitical role for China, in its bid for an increased presence in the Indian ocean.
Until 2010, China did not even have an embassy in the Maldives. However, in the last several years it has not only established diplomatic relations with the island country, but even went so far as to ‘deter’ an Indian intervention after President Yameen imposed a state of emergency in March 2018, scrambling its warships in a calculated move not only to prevent India from expanding its influence but to also cement its influence in the Maldives.
WHY HAS IT DONE THIS?
The Indian Ocean region famously plays a role in the geostrategic rivalry between the Unites States and China in the West Pacific, and between China and India, thus small island nations like the Maldives bear massive importance.
The transportation routes through this area are essential in the Chinese drive to protect its oil routes and its trade. As such, it attempts to minimise its vulnerabilities through the BRI projects which expand both its influence in the region and its energy routes. The Maldives is at the centre of one of these projects, underlining its importance for Chinese trade interests.
Aside from trade, however, China also has other interests in the Maldives, namely militarily. Since 2008, Beijing has exercised a military presence in the Indian ocean region, allowing it to respond quickly to crises and provides the opportunity to exercise a higher level of influence across the region. Furthermore, Chinese military interests in the Indian ocean have contributed to the creation of a ‘string of pearls’ of military bases across the entire area, ranging from the Horn of Africa to the Chinese mainland in a bid to encircle potential rivals such as India.
The Maldives, if brought fully into Beijing’s orbit, could provide China with an opportunity to expand its political and military influence in the Indian Ocean, an opportunity that could be seen as threatening both for India and for wider players in the region such as the UK and US.