Why The Doom And Gloom Over Maldives' Shift Towards China Is Unnecessary

Ujjwal Shrotryia

Feb 07, 2024, 10:56 AM | Updated 11:14 AM IST

File photo of Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu.
File photo of Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu.

Earlier this week, as Indian Navy submarine INS Karanj docked at Colombo in Sri Lanka, a Chinese spy ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 was sailing towards Maldives.

This is in stark contrast to the situation that existed just a few years ago, when Chinese spy vessels would be allowed to dock at Sri Lankan ports by Colombo, despite India's concerns while an India-leaning government was in power in Male.

What does this say about the doom and gloom prevailing in the Indian strategic and foreign policy commentariat about the Maldives' tilt towards China? That it is highly exaggerated and unnecessary, if not completely misplaced.

Since the election of the China-leaning candidate, Mohammed Muizzu, as the President of Maldives in October (2023) last year, riding on a wave of 'India-Out' campaign, Male has been moving away from New Delhi in an apparent embrace of Beijing.

For instance, Muizzu has taken a hardline stance on his pre-election India-Out campaign promise of removing Indian military personnel deployed in Maldives — ostensibly to restore Maldivian sovereignty.

Moreover, Muizzu has broken the customary tradition of the newly elected leaders of the island nation of choosing India as their first pit stop for an official visit, by visiting Turkey, and then landing up in China.

The trip to China came at a time when ministers in his cabinet were making racist comments about Indians and Prime Minister Narendra Modi following his visit to Lakshadweep, where he promoted tourism.

More recently, the new government in the Maldives has decided to operationalise the free-trade agreement with China.

This has led to many in the foreign policy circles profess that India has lost the battle for influence in the Maldives to China, perhaps forever.

However, this cannot be further from the truth.

Losses, if any, are part of the game as India and China jostle for influence in the Indian Ocean littoral states. And no defeat in this game is permanent, neither for India or China, as a closer reading of how similar situations in other countries in the neighbourhood have played out in recent past.

Until only a few years ago, Sri Lanka had a China-leaning government with the Rajapaksa family at its helm. Chinese spy ships were making regular forays to ports in the country.

But then came the devastating economic crisis that drove the Rajapaksas out and brought in a relatively India-friendly Ranil Wickremesinghe to power. Now, if news reports are anything to go by, Sri Lanka has banned the entry of Chinese spy ships to its ports.

To sum it up, the governments led by the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka had shown similar tendencies to Muizzu, taking Sri Lanka deep into the Chinese fold. But first Maithripala Sirisena and, more recently, Ranil Wickremesinghe moved the needle back in Indian favour.

Nepal, too, has seen similar episodes of Indian influence waning for short periods before New Delhi regained ground.

Given that India is the largest country in South Asia, the politician in the neighbourhood will always find a convenient enemy in India to whip up nationalistic rhetoric to come to power.

The kind of anti-India rhetoric we have seen in Maldives in the form of India-Out campaign is not new. Recall K P Sharma Oli in Nepal and his anti-India rants — the unveiling of a new map no less.

New Delhi too knows this reality and has learnt to manage it.

For instance take the case of Maldives — India has ensured its interest are not compromised irrespective of who is in power in Male, from Mohamed Nasheed, Abdulla Yameen to Ibrahim Solih and now Mohammed Muizzu.

Moreover, politicians in the neighbourhood who have come to power on an anti-India platform have quicky found out how such tactics backfire. The fact that Oli lost power in Nepal just months after unveiling a new map — a cartographic aggression of sorts — is not lost on anyone.

Given India's size and relative strengths, no one in India's neighborhood can permanently align against India's interest. When they do, geographic and economic realties come to the fore, forcing them to course correct.

No matter how hard Oli tried, the reality that Nepal had to eventually contend with was that the nearest Chinese port was five times the distance between Kathmandu to Kolkata, and it was across the Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world, no less.

Kathmandu realised this reality, and corrected course, and Male would too. New Delhi, meanwhile, would do what it has mastered in the last decade — strategic patience.

Staff Writer at Swarajya. Writes on Indian Military and Defence.

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