Political Landscape in Maldives: Examining Relations with China and India

The Maldives, an Islamic nation in the Indian Ocean, has undergone significant political changes since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1965. The country is divided between the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), with the MDP currently in power and the PPM as an opposition force.

The Maldives’ economy is heavily dependent on tourism, contributing to its GDP. Human rights abuses, such as restrictions on freedom of speech and political dissent, have been a concern. The role of international actors in supporting the Maldives’ democratic institutions and environmental resilience is expected to grow.

Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, the new Maldivian President, has pledged to maintain a balanced policy on India and China, avoiding identifying with any regional power. His election campaign speeches reflected his lessons from the defeats of his predecessors, Ibrahim Solih in 2023 and Abdulla Yameen in 2018, both of whom were branded as India’s vassal and China’s client, respectively. Muizzu emphasized his commitment to working with all foreign powers without compromising Maldives’ independence and sovereignty.

India’s Prime Minister, Muizzu, has emphasized the importance of protecting the country’s independence over development projects, stating that no development project should come at the cost of the country’s sovereign rights. He assured that foreign military service personnel would not be allowed to remain in the Maldives under his watch, as an influential section of Maldivians see the Indian military unit’s objective as espionage rather than emergency medical aid.

India should consider Muizzu’s views on such issues, as its earlier backing of Solih failed on policy and implementation fronts. Given his reputation as a good administrator, Muizzu could prove to be a better bet than Solih, given his experience in the construction field, including as Housing Minister in Yameen’s government and Mayor of Male. With Muizzu at the helm, India should be able to finish many of its projects, including an ambitious bridge project rivaling the Chinese-built Seenamale bridge. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tweeted that India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

India and the Maldives are expected to face security and sovereignty issues due to India’s perceived involvement in the Indian Ocean and Muizzu’s political party’s desire to disentangle itself from potential India-China standoffs. The Yameen government wanted India to return military helicopters and their crew, but India refused, and the successor pro-India government of Ibrahim Solih renewed the helicopter agreement. A former Maldivian ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed, claimed that India demanded no country other than India should have any right to use the Uthuru Thila Falhu dockyard. India also sought a 99-year lease of 15 hectares of land on HDh. Hanimaadhoo and S. Gan, both adjacent to the islands’ international airports, with a massive credit line of USD 1,940,000,000, posing a threat to Maldivian sovereignty.

Mohamed Muizzu, a pro-China candidate, won the Maldives presidential election, causing significant upheaval in the archipelago’s relationship with India. He played a pivotal role in an earlier government’s development program, partly funded by China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, astride one of the world’s busiest east-west shipping lanes.

Mohamed Muizzu, the Maldives’ new president, has pledged to free Abdulla Yameen, who is serving an 11-year sentence for corruption on the same prison island where he jailed many of his political opponents during his tenure. However, concerns about relations with India have been raised, as the Maldives’ largest neighbor. Muizzu’s foreign affairs advisor stated that his government will continue to regard New Delhi as the “biggest stakeholder” in the security of the Indian Ocean region.

The opposition coalition, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-People’s National Congress (PNC), led a campaign focusing on Solih’s ties with India, alleging that his government allowed the Indian military to be stationed in the island nation. Former Maldivian ambassador to Sri Lanka and Japan, Mohamed Shareef ‘Mundhu’, said India should not be worried about the new government’s hostile stance towards New Delhi.

India and Maldives Forge Strong Bilateral Ties

India and Maldives have a long-standing partnership rooted in shared history, culture, and strategic interests. The relationship has evolved over time, with India’s influence primarily through Buddhism and Islam, and Maldives’ strategic location along vital sea lanes ensuring regional stability.

Economic cooperation is a cornerstone of the India-Maldives relationship, with India being one of the Maldives’ largest trading partners and investors. The Indian government has extended financial assistance and developmental projects to enhance infrastructure, connectivity, and the well-being of the Maldivian people.

Cultural and people-to-people ties extend beyond diplomatic and economic spheres, with people-to-people ties being nurtured through tourism, education, and cultural exchanges. India has actively supported Maldives in its efforts to combat climate change and rising sea levels, including through projects aimed at strengthening the resilience of Maldivian coastal communities.

Despite challenges and geopolitical dynamics in the Indian Ocean region, the two nations have consistently worked to address and overcome these issues through dialogue and cooperation. India’s strategic interest in the Maldives extends beyond bilateral ties, as it views a stable and friendly Maldives as crucial to its maritime security and regional influence.

In recent years, the India-Maldives partnership has grown stronger than ever, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih signing a landmark defense agreement in March 2021, enhancing military cooperation between the two nations.

India and the Maldives are key partners in maintaining regional stability and security, with India actively participating in regional organizations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India has been involved in infrastructure development projects in the Maldives, such as the Greater Malé Connectivity Project and the expansion of Velana International Airport, which enhance connectivity and promote economic growth.

Tourism and trade remain vital components of the relationship, with Indian tourists visiting the Maldives for its pristine beaches and luxury resorts. Trade ties are being strengthened by reducing trade barriers and increasing bilateral trade volume. Cultural diplomacy is a soft power tool used by both nations to foster goodwill and understanding. Security cooperation between India and the Maldives covers counter-terrorism, anti-piracy efforts, and maritime security.

India has provided patrol vessels to the Maldivian Coast Guard to safeguard their territorial waters. However, the India-Maldives relationship faces evolving challenges, including competition for influence in the Indian Ocean region, and both nations must remain vigilant and proactive in addressing these challenges.

Maldives-China Ties: Exploring the Expanding Partnership

The Maldives and China have been strengthening their diplomatic and economic ties, marking a significant shift in the Indian Ocean region’s power dynamics. The Maldives, an archipelago of 26 coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, has historically been of strategic importance to various global powers due to its location along key maritime trade routes. In recent years, the Maldives has been navigating a complex foreign policy balancing act between traditional ally India and the emerging influence of China in the region.

China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean has led to apprehensions in New Delhi, as India views the Maldives as within its sphere of influence and has traditionally enjoyed close ties with the island nation. The growing proximity between the Maldives and China has raised questions about the broader power struggle in the Indian Ocean and how it might impact regional stability.

Both the Maldives and China are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly rising sea levels. In response, they have cooperated on environmental initiatives and advocated for climate action on the global stage.

The evolving relationship between the Maldives and China is part of China’s broader strategy to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean, often referred to as its “String of Pearls” strategy. The Maldives must ensure that its sovereignty and interests are safeguarded in the process of deepening ties with China.

The growing ties between the Maldives and China have led to concerns about potential security implications and reassessment of foreign policy strategies in the Indian Ocean region. China and the Maldives have initiated discussions on security cooperation, including naval exercises and maritime security dialogues, which have raised eyebrows in strategic circles.

The Maldives’ participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been a focal point of their economic partnership, but it has faced criticism for its debt-driven nature and potential for strategic leverage by China. Striking a diplomatic balance between India and China remains a challenging endeavor for the Maldives.

The Maldives-China partnership is part of China’s broader ambitions to expand its influence globally, serving as a case study for China’s soft power diplomacy and economic investments in strategically important regions.

The future trajectory of the Maldives-China partnership is complex and multifaceted, requiring both nations to address various challenges, including environmental concerns, economic sustainability, and regional geopolitical tensions. The Maldives must continue to manage its relations with India and China while safeguarding its sovereignty, protecting its environment, and ensuring the welfare of its citizens.

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