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China is Favored by The Maldives as Tensions With India Grow


Introduction to The Tension

China is seemingly favored by the Maldives, a tropical paradise in the Indian ocean, as it has become the latest battleground in the escalating rivalry between regional titans including India.

Under new president Mohamed Muizzu, the Maldives has provocatively announced the end of decades of Indian military presence on the islands. His burgeoning alliance with Beijing caps a presidency fueled by fiery anti-India nationalism.

This is reflected in the ever decreasing numbers of Indian tourists contrasting the growing numbers of Chinese tourists after courting by the President of the Maldives.

As tensions build, some fear an all-out cold war as India remains determined to retain its grip over its maritime backyard with a new naval base underscoring plans to project power and counter growing Chinese assertiveness.

With both Asian giants jostling for supremacy, the Maldives now risks being reduced to a pawn in this geopolitical chess match.

New China Friends, New India Enemies

Since Mohamed Muizzu was elected president of the Maldives in September and throughout his presidential campaign, a wave of anti-India sentiment has swept the archipelago nation as he steered his island nation sharply away from its formerly close ties with India and into China’s embrace.

This week, it became abundantly clear to New Delhi exactly where Muizzu’s allegiance lies – and it is not with India.

“There will be no Indian troops in the country come 10 May. Not in uniform and not in civilian clothing. The Indian military will not be residing in this country in any form of clothing. I state this with confidence,” Muizzu firmly declared in a public address on Tuesday, announcing an end to decades of Indian military presence in the islands.

His remarks came after a heated spat erupted between the neighbours. Muizzu obliquely dubbed India a regional bully, provoking a sharp retort from India’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, that “big bullies don’t provide $4.5 billion in aid.”

This referred to the lavish development funds India has funnelled to the islands, despite growing Maldivian hostility.

In a seemingly bewildering and quite stark contrast, Muizzu’s government announced an agreement with China this week to receive free military assistance, alongside a gift of 12 ambulances.

While Maldives and China have previous economic and diplomatic accords, this landmark pact represents their first formal defence alliance.

Azim Zahir, former Maldivian presidential advisor and professor at the University of Western Australia commented on the strangeness of the speed through which the new president of Maldives moved to secure ties with China, while knowing full well that this would upset his Indian neighbours. If anything, this dramatic policy will go ahead and further escalate the already steaming regional tensions between India and the Maldives

But why exactly is all of this political power play happening? Why is China and India fighting tooth and nail over what appears as an insignificant group of islands with a population of 500,000 people?

Well the answer will have to be much more nuanced than just a few words and sentences strung together.

Where we were with India to Where we are with China

A couple of small islands close to the coast of India and China, two of the world’s most populous and powerful nations, the Maldives has found itself caught in the middle of their escalating competition for regional influence.

This Indian Ocean archipelago of 500,000 people represents a tiny speck on the map. But its strategic location and political shifts make it a critical chess piece in the broader struggle unfolding across South Asia.

For decades, India was the undisputed power in the region, wielding significant economic and military might. However, in recent years China has aggressively expanded its footprint, investing billions in infrastructure projects and port access in countries surrounding India.

And this brought their attention to the Maldives.

The Maldives’ geography makes it a key priority for both Asian heavyweights as China seeks a foothold in the Arabian Sea to safeguard its oil supply lines from the Gulf.

India, on the other hand, aims to prevent its island neighbour becoming too intimate with Beijing, especially as tensions flare along their Himalayan border.

In January, the Maldives provoked a sudden spat with New Delhi over perceived threats to its tourism sector.

However, the tussle for influence across the islands’ idyllic lagoons has not yet escalated into open hostilities.

You would think much of the relationship depends on the tilt of the Maldives’ own politicians, either towards India or China, although China seems to be winning this tug-o-war. However and a most important factor is the largesse both sides invest to court goodwill among Maldivians themselves.

Or as the minister of economic development in The Maldives, Mohamed Saeed, likes to put it “We would like to get the best value for our tuna,”.

Mister Saeed’s government goal is expanding the $6.5 billion economy five-fold over the next five years.

Tourism contributes $6 billion annually, with the remainder from fishing.

The Maldives only discovered the lucrative tourism market in 1972. But It now hosts over one million visitors yearly, drawn to the luxurious overwater villas sprouting from its resorts.

Democracy only arrived in 2008 with the election of the dynamic Mohamed Nasheed.

The incumbent president, Mohamed Muizzu, came to power last year after pledging to expel the 80 Indian troops stationed in the islands.

Muizzu appointed Saeed, who insists that the new administration simply pursues a “pro-Maldives” policy.

He claims there is no preference for China, despite having overseen free trade negotiations with Beijing under a previous government.
The “official” line used is that the Maldives extends an open invitation for business to all countries, but the line is seemingly being blurred.

And the blurring is starting to affect key revenues and industries for the Maldives, one of which is tourism.

Goodbye Indian Tourists and Hello Chinese Ones

After the extensive anti-india campaigns and the president that champions the rising number of Dhivehin expressing their dislike for Modi’s nationalist hinduism, obviously Indians and especially patriotic Indians will attempt to boycott the Islands.

According to a recent report, India was previously the second biggest source of visitors to the Maldives, with a 10% market share until March 2022.

However, India has now slipped to sixth place with just 6% of arrivals. Meanwhile, and in a not so shocking revelation, Chinese tourist numbers have surged over recent months.

India was the top inbound market for the Maldives in 2021 and 2022, sending over 200,000 tourists annually. But China has now seized the top spot, with over 54,000 arrivals so far in 2023.

When Muizzu visited China last month, shortly after the insults against Modi, he appealed for more Chinese tourists.

This provocative move came just as Indian social media seethed with calls to boycott the Maldives.

February statistics underline the dramatic impact – 217,394 tourists arrived in the Maldives that month, including 34,646 Chinese. This was a 10.7% increase compared to February 2019, as new Chinese airlines launched Maldives services.

Muizzu’s China visit and obsequious request underscored his intention to replace lost Indian tourists with Chinese ones. With relations deteriorating, the Maldives appears ready to pivot tourism marketing towards China.

But the long-term economic impacts of alienating the previously loyal Indian market could, as much as every other hostile remark thrown at India, prove damaging.

And as China and India’s rivalry intensified, so have attempts to influence the Maldives.

While China dangles generous carrots through its deep pockets, India also wields sticks thanks to the islands’ dependence on their neighbour during crises.

Same Old Cold-War

The Maldives’ government insists its only alignment is with its own people, playing India and China off against each other to maximise investment.

But events surrounding the whole debacle, like the increasingly concerning Chinese military movement towards Male on the coast of India, are starting to resemble the opening gambits of a broader cold war between the two Asian rivals, with the islands caught helplessly in the middle.

And as such India is establishing a new naval base on Minicoy Island in the Lakshadweep archipelago, as one very public part of efforts to boost its military presence and surveillance capabilities in the Indian Ocean, and another unspoken part of challenging China’s presence.

Analysts contend the new Minicoy base will counterbalance Chinese moves to expand military ties with the Maldives.

Over the past decade, infrastructure projects financed by Beijing in neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan have raised alarms in New Delhi. And now the Maldives seem to be the latest on a long list.

These have been perceived as allowing China to project strategic influence closer to India’s borders.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said on Tuesday that India is now “rebalancing military resources” towards maritime security. Opening a new building at the Naval War College in Goa, he vowed India would ensure no country can dominate the Indian Ocean through overwhelming economic or military power.

Muizzu however remains defiant, calculating the benefits from flaunting Indian proximity outweigh the risks but while his actions underscore the shifting regional balance of power, spurning India’s embrace could still prove unwise if it provokes a backlash.

With tensions simmering, the Indian Ocean is poised to become the next arena of simmering geopolitical competition between Asia’s major powers.

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