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Shifting Geopolitical Tides in the Indian Ocean

The ebb and flow of shifting dynamics resemble high tide waves, ushering in new dynamics in the relationship between India, China, and the Maldives
12:14 AM Mar 10, 2024 IST | SURINDER SINGH OBEROI
shifting geopolitical tides in the indian ocean
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In recent years, the relationship between India and the Maldives has undergone significant fluctuations, influenced by a complex interplay of geopolitics, economic interests, and domestic politics.

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After a challenging period in India-Maldives relations from 2013 to 2018, followed by a period of improved ties from 2019 to 2023, the relationship has once again encountered difficulties since late November 2023.

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Presently, what is happening is a repeat of the tenure of former President Abdulla Yameen, from 2013 to 2018, witnessed a notable pivot towards China, as evidenced by the sidelining of Indian civil contracts including airport construction in favour of Chinese firms. This shift was accompanied by a surge in Chinese investments, particularly in critical infrastructure projects such as bridges, airports, and housing developments.

What is more worrying now is that China’s expanding footprint in the new Maldivian government extends beyond economic and social spheres to encompass strategic military cooperation which is worrisome and being noted not only by India but all those countries who have an interest and stakes in the Indian Ocean.

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The phased withdrawal of around 80 Indian troops, timed to meet Maldivian President Muizzu’s deadline, serves as a symbolic gesture of India’s respect for Maldives’ sovereignty while also signalling its concerns about growing Chinese influence in its backyard.

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With the Maldives increasingly leaning towards China again, India faces the challenge of preserving its influence and security in the region amidst shifting geopolitical dynamics keeping into consideration the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean.

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The signing of two major defence agreements, unprecedented in the history of Maldives-China relations, represents a noteworthy concern in the evolving Maldives–China military partnership.

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The decision to provide military training and non-lethal weaponry to Maldivian troops has raised concerns, particularly considering the already substantial training provided by India and the US to the small army and security forces of the Maldives.

This new development in China’s involvement in enhancing the Maldives’ defence capabilities has the potential to reshape regional security dynamics and increase China’s military presence in the Maldives.

The recent visit of China’s Major General Zhang Baoqun, a senior military commander and Deputy Director of China’s Office for International Military Cooperation, underlines China’s strategic ambitions in the region. Major General Zhang’s meetings with Maldivian military and political leaders, along with visits to different islands, demonstrate China’s comprehensive strategy to broaden its influence.

In addition, the increased presence of Chinese tourists, increased number of commercial flights, and official delegations in the Maldives in the last three months underscores China’s growing footprint in the region.

Furthermore, the recent anchoring of a Chinese spy or research ship in Maldivian waters for weeks together, while denied by Sri Lankan authorities, has raised suspicions about China’s intentions in the region.

President Muizzu’s emphasis on autonomy and independence in his remarks reflects a desire to diversify the Maldives’ strategic partnerships while asserting its sovereignty. However, concerns persist regarding the lack of transparency surrounding China’s military assistance, prompting questions about potential conditions attached to such aid and its long-term impact on the Maldives’ sovereignty.

Maintaining independence and fostering relationships with multiple countries is a legitimate endeavour for any nation. However, the lack of transparency and perceived mistreatment of old allies raises concerns. India has never contested the Maldives’ right to establish independent partnerships but is apprehensive that without careful risk assessment, the Maldives may inadvertently fall into economic hardship.

Amidst these unfolding developments, regional stakeholders, including India, are closely monitoring the evolving situation. India’s withdrawal from the Maldives, coupled with the increasing military presence of China in Male and its surroundings, prompts India to reassess its regional strategy. India must uphold its influence in the Indian Ocean while adeptly adapting to shifting dynamics.

In this swiftly changing landscape, maintaining equilibrium necessitates astute diplomacy, strategic foresight, and nuanced comprehension of evolving realities.

India, therefore, must reevaluate its approach and bolster its extensive maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. This entails navigating a delicate balance between safeguarding its strategic interests and ensuring regional security.

Efforts were made to address differences through a core group formed between India and the Maldives after Prime Minister Modi met the Maldivian president for the first time on the sidelines of the Cop28 meeting in the UAE. but recent developments indicate a hardening of the Maldivian stance and even reversing their decision.

The decision to prohibit even civilian personnel from operating aircraft in the Maldives raises questions about President Muizzu’s motivations. Some interpret and suspect Chinese influence behind the move, aiming to limit Indian presence and bolster Chinese military capabilities in the region.

However, the surge in Chinese investment has also sparked concerns about the Maldives’ increasing indebtedness to Beijing. Critics, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, have warned of the risks associated with heavy reliance on Chinese financing, citing examples from neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, where mounting debt led to significant concessions of sovereignty.

Moreover, former President Yameen’s presidency was marred by a rise in religious extremism and radicalization, with reports of Maldivian youth being recruited by extremist groups like ISIS. This trend not only posed internal security challenges but also raised alarm bells internationally, particularly among India and other regional stakeholders.

The election of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in 2018 heralded a significant shift in the country’s political landscape. The previous government prioritized the restoration of democratic norms and sought a more balanced approach to external partnerships, marking a departure from previous administrations.

This shift led to a renewed engagement with India, characterized by increased Indian investments in developmental projects and a revitalization of bilateral ties.

However, recent events have strained India-Maldives relations once again. President Muizzu’s anti-India rhetoric and controversial remarks targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi have raised concerns in New Delhi and dampened public sentiment towards the Maldives in India.

Moreover, perceived provocations, such as Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep and accusations of attempting to divert tourism away from the Maldives, have exacerbated tensions.

Additionally, the Maldivian government’s decision to allow a controversial Chinese research vessel into its waters, despite objections from India, not allowing Indian ships to have their usual hydrographic research or Maldives not participating in the regular trilateral exercise in the Indian Ocean has heightened apprehensions about the country’s strategic alignment and further complicated the bilateral relationship.

In response to these developments, India announced plans for a second naval base in Lakshadweep, seen as an attempt to bolster its military presence in the region amidst escalating tensions.

India has also strengthened its ties with Mauritius, President Droupadi Murmu’s upcoming state visit underscores the depth of bilateral cooperation and shared development initiatives between the two nations.

The inauguration of India-assisted projects, including infrastructure upgrades on Agalega Island including airstrip and jetty, highlights India’s strategic interests in the western Indian Ocean and its commitment to regional stability and development.

While some fear that China may have taken advantage of the Maldives’ strained relations with India and its economic vulnerabilities to secure the defence deal, others view India’s response to the new Muizzu government as taking the issue very lightly and counterproductive, potentially driving the Maldives closer to Beijing.

Despite these shifts, severing ties with India entirely seems unlikely for the Maldives, given the substantial budgetary aid it receives from India and people-to-people contacts as well as centuries-old trade between the two countries. Muizzu’s administration aims to diversify away from dependence on India, raising questions about the risks involved in such a move and the calculations behind it.

India has held a long significant role in ensuring the security and stability of the Maldives, fostering strong people-to-people connections and robust business ties. The cultural similarities between the two nations have always strengthened their bond, with Maldivians often seeking education in Indian universities and showing deep respect for Indian professionals such as doctors and teachers who always keep the hope alive of maintaining the best of the relations.

Additionally, the establishment of a US embassy in Malé hints at the Maldives potentially becoming a focal point in the US’s Indo-Pacific security strategy, further complicating the regional geopolitical scenario.

As parliamentary elections of Maldives approach on April 21, expectations mount for heightened rhetoric from President Muizzu as he vies for a majority in the house. The evolving geopolitical landscape in the Indian Ocean holds implications not only for India-Maldives relations but also for regional security and stability. 

The author is National Editor, Greater Kashmir

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