India, China war of positions in Maldives
For the Maldives, the extent and nature of India-China competition impacts its political state.
The Maldivian presidential election last month culminated in a victory for Mohamed Muizzu and a loss for incumbent president Ibrahim Solih. The election was keenly watched in New Delhi and Beijing. How India and China see each other in strategic spaces such as the Maldives determines the nature of their competition in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
India’s partnership with the Maldives is well-known and spans numerous areas such as development, defence, and security. India plays a key role in the Maldives’ security and has a burgeoning defence engagement with the island nation. China’s partnership with the Maldives has come to acquire numerous dimensions, with a strong trade and development relationship underwriting it.
In 2017, the Maldives became a member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and signed its first-ever Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China. President Xi Jinping also elicited former president Abdulla Yameen’s support for Chinese engagement in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The “India-first” foreign policy since 2018 under Solih’s presidency has not meant disengagement from China. In 2022, foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to Malé led to key agreements, including projects spanning infrastructure, energy, and supply chains, including allowing visa-free travel from Maldives.
How India and China see each other’s role and motivations in the IOR influences the nature and extent of their competition in the Maldives. Delhi’s engagement with the Maldives is strongly determined by India’s IOR interests. The region is a key theatre for India: Regional concerns and developments are paramount to India. Recently, India ramped up its capacity in the IOR, focusing on bolstering maritime domain awareness, and surveillance, among other assets, along with bolder budgetary allocations to the Indian Navy.
India’s increasing focus on its capacity in the IOR, among other things, aims to deter China’s increasing regional influence. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) greater presence and deployment in the IOR and the presence of Chinese research and fishing vessels have increased India’s threat perception of China. For instance, India is troubled by the presence of Chinese research vessels in Sri Lanka and has raised its strategic and security concerns with Sri Lanka. At the 23rd Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) meeting earlier this month, India also articulated that “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” was the foundation for reviving the Indian Ocean as a “strong community”.
As Chinese projection capability and influence in the IOR grows, the perception of India as an important regional developmental, diplomatic, and security actor may come under a cloud. This perception is also likely to intensify with deepening India-China strategic competition, fuelled by the tense state on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
For China, its dependence on West Asia for its energy and trade has brought into the picture the security of sea lanes in the IOR, especially its western part. The maritime aspect of the BRI seeks to create a commercial network linking the IOR to the Eurasian hinterland and Western China. China’s engagement in the IOR has brought into the picture its engagement with the Maldives, and, therefore, India’s role in the IOR.
Chinese discourse emphasises Beijing’s IOR presence by claiming the need for inclusivity in the IOR and pitching the development of the region as a multilateral effort. Take, for instance, the visit of a Chinese research and survey vessel, Yuan Wang 5, to Sri Lanka last year, and how the Chinese perceived India’s reading of the situation. New Delhi’s concerns about the Chinese presence in the IOR were seen as Indian “interference” in the China-Sri Lanka “friendly” dynamic that hampers long-standing positive relations between the two. India’s defence and development cooperation with the Maldives is labelled India’s “meddling” within an independent country and hampering its sovereignty. Finally, India’s concerns with Chinese IOR expansion are seen to indicate the lack of India’s strategic confidence and show poorly on its policies.
For the Maldives, the extent and nature of India-China competition impacts its political state. As a SIDS, the Maldives’ relationship with larger States like India and China — and partnerships for security and development — is not abnormal. As scholar Athaulla Rasheed writes, Malé’s foreign policies simply reflect engagement with larger States to maximise developmental gains, thereby increasing its political autonomy. Moreover, political ideas dictate the choice of partners. This logic works for other SIDS like Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
But India-China competition is not the only lens to view the nature of the Maldives’ foreign policy. How it recalibrates foreign policy has implications for its future international role. As Rasheed further shows, the Maldives’ engagements with India and China determine its role in the Indo-Pacific security space, the nature and kind of engagement with other states such as the United States and Australia. It has implications for Maldivian agency amidst India-China competition in theatres that matter to it the most. For example, deeper engagement with China will influence the terms of the Maldives’ engagement in South Asia (through SAARC, for example) and the IOR and its various institutions.
Bharat Sharma is a research analyst at Takshashila Institution. The views expressed are personal