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Maldives expected to accelerate shift from India to China following parliamentary polls

Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu speaks at a rally to celebrate the victory in the parliamentary elections, in Male, Maldives, on April 22, 2024.
Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu speaks at a rally to celebrate the victory in the parliamentary elections, in Male, Maldives, on April 22, 2024.

The sweeping victory of Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu’s People's National Congress in recent parliamentary elections is seen as a strong endorsement of his policy since he took office six months ago to pursue close ties with China and reduce the archipelago’s dependence on neighboring India.

Having won three-quarters of the seats including allies, that policy could be fast-tracked, setting back India’s efforts to limit China’s influence in the Indian Ocean region, according to analysts in New Delhi. The April 21 elections handed more than 70 seats to Muizzu’s party and its allies in the 93-member assembly.

“There will be certainly some worry in India that now there is one-party rule in the Maldives, there will be momentum to President Muizzu’s policies in favor of China and tilted against India,” said Harsh Pant, vice president for studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Maldives expected to accelerate shift away from India toward China after parliamentary polls
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Muizzu is expected to strengthen strategic ties with Beijing and press ahead with Chinese-funded infrastructure projects that had been blocked by the outgoing opposition-controlled parliament.

His party has promised an infrastructure boom, including apartments, bridges and a new airport.

"We will bid farewell to the enduring anguish of housing insecurity, a pressing and longstanding concern burdening the Maldivian populace," his office said last week after the election results were announced. The push for infrastructure projects comes even as the International Monetary Fund has warned that the Maldives faces a high risk of debt distress.

China established its footprint in the Maldives a decade ago under a pro-Beijing administration that had joined Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. But its influence diminished under Muizzu’s predecessor, former president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who had flagged concerns about Maldives' huge debt to China and built strong ties with India.

The ground for strengthening ties with Beijing was set by the Maldivian president during a visit to China in January – he made his first official overseas visit to China instead of making New Delhi as had been customary. Both China and Maldives agreed to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership."

Following last week’s landslide parliamentary victory by Muizzu’s party, Beijing’s foreign ministry said it is ready to strengthen cooperation with Maldives.

Small countries like Maldives and Sri Lanka, sitting along vital shipping routes for trade in the Indian Ocean are the new focus of a geopolitical tussle between Asian rivals China and India.

India had been the primary defense partner for Maldives that lies close to its southern tip, but analysts say the strong parliamentary victory has given its new leader the mandate to strengthen strategic ties with Beijing. The two countries signed a military assistance agreement last month, which according to the Maldivian Defense Ministry would be given for free.

After its signing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning said that “normal cooperation between China and the Maldives does not target any third party and will not be disrupted by any third party.”

The view in New Delhi is different. “China will want to use Maldives as a springboard or a launchpad to have more eyes and ears in the region, to maintain pressure on India and deter its ability to be the dominant player in the Indian Ocean,” according to Sreeram Chaulia, dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.

Strategic ties that India built under Muizzu’s predecessor have already taken a hit as the Maldivian leader vows to boost the country’s own defenses. The last of about 90 Indian troops in the archipelago who crewed helicopters and assisted in humanitarian evacuations are due to leave the country by May 10 – most have already returned to India after the Maldivian president said he would not allow Indian soldiers in the country.

“Dislodging India and bringing in China as a defense partner is certainly something which one will have to observe,” said Pant. “While the expectation was that he would balance ties between India and China, now they appear to be going one-way. So step-by-step engagement, defense diplomacy, then buying some limited defense equipment from China might be the first few steps that we might see.”

Analysts also expect Chinese naval presence in the Maldives is likely to increase. A Chinese survey ship, Xiang Yang Hong 3, docked in Maldivian waters in February raising concerns in India. According to local media reports in the Maldives, the ship has now come to the country for a second visit.

China says the ships enhance scientific understanding of the ocean. But India fears that such vessels could collect data of military value.

“Number of visits of Chinese naval vessels will go up, that is for sure. Joint exercises could also happen,” according to Sankalp Gurjar, assistant professor in geopolitics and international relations at India’s Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

However analysts say Muizzu, who had campaigned on an “India-Out” platform, could also moderate his anti-India stand as the tiny archipelago of half a million relies on its giant neighbor for several essentials such as food and healthcare. Earlier this month, New Delhi allowed limited exports of commodities, such as sugar, wheat, rice, and onions, to the Maldives, despite having placed curbs on their exports to control prices in the domestic market.

“They need economic assistance from many players. India is continuing to commit economic aid, foreign assistance, development partnership work and that is one means by which we will try to maintain leverage,” said Chaulia.

Analysts say New Delhi has taken a cautious stand as diplomatic ties fray and will adopt a “wait and watch” policy.