In an anarchical international system, smaller states often find it challenging to exercise complete sovereignty over their territory amidst unbridled strategic competition. Maldives, an archipelagic state in the Indian Ocean, finds itself in such a situation in the light of great power competition in its vicinity. The recent Presidential elections in Maldives concluded with the victory of People’s National Congress (PNC) candidate Mohamed Muizzu. During the campaign, widely considered pro-China, Muizzu consistently alleged a threat to the nation’s sovereignty by the presence of the Indian military on the small archipelagic state as part of PNC’s “India out” strategy. Central to the election campaign were hawkish debates among contesting parties on whether India or China would have an influential say in Male’s politics.
It’s clear that the 470-mile territory, with a population of about half a million, does not have much to offer in terms of natural resources or markets. However, being strategically located at the center of the Indian Ocean, the 26-atoll island nation provides vantage points for monitoring & surveillance of vital shipping lanes in the region. Maldives is just 70 nautical miles from Minicoy, the Southernmost part of the Indian Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Unlike China, India has a rich history of engagement with the Maldives, dating back to ancient times. But, over the last decade, the strategic competition has become sharper in the Indian Ocean due to China’s diplomatic overtures and financial assistance to states in what experts call ‘India’s Backyard.’ Therefore, the increasing Chinese influence in Maldives carries potential security implications for New Delhi.
China’s ‘String of Pearls’ design amplified Male’s emergence in Beijing’s geopolitical calculus. Its relations with the Maldives gained ground during the tenure of former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen (2013-2018), who, similar to Muizzu, had an anti-India stance since his rival Mohamed Nasheed was supported by India. China, after President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Maldives in 2014, invested heavily in infrastructural projects while leasing some of its islands in the name of developing the island state’s tourism industry, made possible with the promulgation of law in July 2015, allowing the territories to be leased to foreign parties investing over $ 1 billion. Under President Yameen’s rule, Maldives also became one of the first countries to sign the agreement, supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In February 2018, former President Mohamed Nasheed accused China of being “busy buying up the Maldives,” which was reprehensibly dismissed by China. The accusation, however, turned out to be accurate as Chinese debt today constitutes 30 percent of Maldives’ $6 billion economy. The country now under the helm of former President Yameen’s protégé, Muizzu, should learn from its neighbor, Sri Lanka’s experience: that Chinese monetary showers can be nefarious, with strings attached. Unlike India, China’s long-term strategy for the Indian Ocean region foresees control over the strategic assets of countries in its bid to gain a predominant foothold over the maritime commons. In acuminous contrast to the Chinese nature of engagement, India has always been a first responder in times of distress, be it Operation Cactus of 1998, the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, the water crisis in 2014, or the Covid pandemic in the Maldives. This has generated significant goodwill among Maldivians, which can also be attributed to India’s community-centric projects involving a broad range of infrastructure, from law enforcement and water supply to mosques and parks.
While many commentators and news reports labeled the victory of supposedly pro-China Muizzu as a blowback for India’s strategic interests, the reality tells a different story. The President-elect has given contradictory signals, stating that he might review while not disturbing some ongoing Indian projects. If he chooses to scrap India’s projects, he might incur discontent from the Maldivians as most ongoing projects are community centric. The case of pro-China Yameen is particularly striking. During his tenure as President, he declined India’s invitation to join the Milan Exercise and the latter’s gift involving helicopters. At the same time, he visited New Delhi thrice while signing a defense agreement with its neighbor in 2018. Similarly, during his term, the former and staunch pro-India President Mohamed Nasheed presided over the country’s one of the largest projects financed by China. Therefore, the classic political dynamic of the paradox between talk and the walk could be repeated.
President-elect Muizzu will face affinitive economic challenges like the previous administration and is likely to opt for foreign-funded contracts that are viable and aligned with national interests to ensure a way out of its developmental challenges, including unemployment and connectivity gaps. This means that despite Muizzu’s reservations against India, it needs to constructively engage with the newly elected President and offer rewarding alternatives. India might have stepped up its game in the recent past, but it still languishes in the pace of delivery. She would need to up its game to walk the talk of “Neighborhood first” to reinforce its strategic presence and match China’s precipitous delivery of infrastructural projects. Considering increased commercial stakes, China would want to preserve its strategic gains in the archipelagic state. Therefore, it is incumbent upon India to protect its ‘pre-eminence’ and maintain stakes in one of the most politically unstable nations in the region. The time for India to act on “time-tested” ties is now.
Author’s Bio: Arudra Singh is a researcher and writer at the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers. He is a Master’s student at the Jindal School of International Affairs.