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China, India Compete for Influence in Indian Ocean

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping and Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jan. 10, 2024. (cnsphoto via Reuters)
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping and Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jan. 10, 2024. (cnsphoto via Reuters)

China has increased efforts to deepen security ties with countries in the Indian Ocean in recent weeks, signing a new security agreement with the Maldives and sending a military delegation to three regional countries earlier this month.

On March 4, the Maldives’ Ministry of Defense announced that the country had signed a military assistance agreement with China that aims to “foster stronger bilateral ties.” The ministry didn’t elaborate on the details of the agreement.

China’s Ministry of National Defense also sent a military delegation on a 10-day visit to the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Nepal earlier this month.

According to the ministry, the delegation met with Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu and defense officials from all three countries to discuss “regional security issues of common concerns,” develop bilateral military ties, and promote bilateral defense cooperation.

These developments come as India begins to withdraw around 80 security personnel stationed in the Maldives at Muizzu’s request. The Indian security personnel were deployed to the archipelago to operate helicopters and other aircraft for surveillance or rescue missions.

It also follows the visit of a Chinese research ship to the Maldives last month. Chinese research vessels’ increased activities in the Indian Ocean over the last few months have sparked security concerns in India, which worries that Beijing could deploy naval vessels to the region based on insights gained from these activities.

Some analysts say recent developments in the Indian Ocean are part of China’s long-term efforts to increase its regional security presence. “China has been doing so for about 15 years, and it’s been taking an opportunistic approach to [increase its security presence] in the Indian Ocean,” David Brewster, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University, told VOA by phone.

Instead of focusing on cultivating security ties with one specific country, Brewster said China often waits for opportunities to “enhance its position” in certain countries in the Indian Ocean region.

In the case of the Maldives, China “is taking advantage of the fact that the new [Maldives] government under Muizzu came into power last November having taken advantage of the ‘India Out’ feelings among many people in the country,” he said.

Responding to inquiries about the withdrawal of Indian security personnel from Maldives, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on March 12 that China “supports the Maldives in safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and carrying out friendly cooperation with all sides on the basis of independence.”

While the Maldives has increased its exchanges with China under the new government, Brewster said it’s unclear how substantial the relationship can be. “The first steps of military cooperation [between China and the Maldives] is fairly modest and it’s not clear how the bilateral security relationship is going to develop,” he told VOA.

Even so, some experts say India will be concerned about China’s growing security presence in the Indian Ocean and will try to counter Beijing’s attempts by expanding its presence or strengthening exchanges with neighboring countries.

“If you have a country of China's size, resources, and capabilities making a presence in the Indian Ocean and South Asia, India’s options get constrained,” said Harsh Pant, Vice President of Studies and Foreign Policy at the Observer Research Foundation in India.

India has adopted some measures to strengthen its presence and safeguard its interests in the strategically important region, with 80% of global maritime shipments passing through the waters.

Earlier this month, India unveiled a plan to build a new naval base on Minicoy, which is the southernmost island in India’s Lakshadweep archipelago and is close to the Maldives. Pant said New Delhi is also building new facilities in other regional countries such as Mauritius.

“India has its approach to managing the security transformation in the region,” he told VOA by phone, adding that the efforts include delivering projects in neighboring countries, enhancing India’s capabilities for maritime domain awareness, and leveraging its partnership with like-minded democracies such as the U.S. and Japan.

Brewster in Australia said recent developments are part of the constant jostling for influence between Beijing and New Delhi.

“In any given island country [in the region,] it’s a bit of a pendulum that swings back and forth between Indian and Chinese influence,” he told VOA, adding that domestic political changes in regional countries can often create conditions that favor either China or India.

Some analysts say the region will become another area of fierce geopolitical competition between major powers.

“China may try to establish more naval bases, tactical air support or logistics reinforcement in the Indian Ocean region over the next decade,” Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of China studies at India's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told VOA by phone.

Kondapalli thinks India and its allies may increase the number of naval vessels in the Indian Ocean and “cobble up” some naval arrangements with regional countries. “We would probably see some low-level skirmish and contestation in the Indian Ocean region in the future,” he said.