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Navigating China's Indian Ocean Ambitions: Mohamed Muizzu's Role In Malé – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Navigating China's Indian Ocean Ambitions: Mohamed Muizzu's Role in Malé

Harsh V Pant

Mohamed Muizzu is helping Beijing expand its presence in the Indian Ocean

LAST WEEK, AS TENSIONS between India and the Maldives rose, former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed issued an apology on behalf of the Maldivian people and expressed his concerns about the downward spiral in bilateral ties between the two close neighbours. He also underlined New Delhi’s responsible approach in dealing with President Mohamed Muizzu’s rather undiplomatic behaviour since assuming office. Nasheed said, “When the president of the Maldives wanted Indian military personnel to leave, you know what India did? They did not twist their arms. They did not display their muscle, but simply told the government of Maldives, ‘Okay, let’s have a discussion on that’.”

From a high under Ibrahim Solih, relations between the Maldives and India have been on shaky grounds since Muizzu came to power. He had run his campaign on an anti-India platform and his ‘India Out’ campaign garnered significant attention last year. Accusing India and the previous Maldivian government of violating the country’s sovereignty, Muizzu had asked India to remove its troops from Maldives immediately after being sworn in.

Turkey was Muizzu’s first destination for a bilateral visit followed by China, breaking a long held tradition whereby his predecessors used to visit India first after taking office. Malé was absent from the Colombo Security Conclave meeting in December. And then, Muizzu’s government decided to not renew an agreement with New Delhi that allowed India to conduct hydrographic surveys in Maldivian waters.

As if all that was not enough, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep in early January to inaugurate the Kochi-Lakshadweep Islands Submarine Optical Fibre Connection and some other projects, when he also took time out for some snorkeling and leisure activities, ended up taking social media by storm.

As some people in India suggested boosting tourism in Lakshadweep would be a good idea, some in the Maldives saw Modi’s visit as an attempt to project Lakshadweep as an alternative to the Maldives. In the process, derogatory remarks against Indians and the prime minister were made, which led to a strong reaction in India.

Some of these comments came from deputy ministers in the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Art of the Maldives in response to which the hashtag #BoycottMaldives started trending on X (formerly Twitter), with many Indians expressing their displeasure and some even cancelling their plans to visit the Maldives.

Muizzu, on his five-day state visit to China, described China as one of Maldives’ “closest allies and development partners” and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as “the most significant infrastructure project witnessed in Maldivian history.” After returning home, he launched a veiled attack on India by suggesting that “we [the Maldives] may be small, but that doesn’t give you the licence to bully us.” Then came the ultimatum from his government that New Delhi withdraw its military from the archipelago before March 15, even as he went ahead and signed a defence pact with China “on China’s provision of military assistance gratis to the Republic of Maldives.”

While the agreement itself remains shrouded in secrecy, the only aspect known is that the Chinese military would be providing free “non-lethal” military equipment and training to the island nation. For a government that has often talked of the presence of 77 Indian soldiers and 12 medical personnel from the Indian armed forces in the Maldives in conspiratorial terms, it is indeed strange that it would be entering a defence pact with a country like China that is known for opaque arrangements. For Muizzu, Malé’s sovereignty gets strangely affected when dealing with a transparent democratic India but not with a communist authoritarian China.

India’s tone has remained a measured one with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar maintaining that misunderstandings can arise between nations and expressing optimism in resolving the dispute through diplomatic means. It is clear that Muizzu’s pro-China tilt has very little to do with India’s supposed interference in the country’s internal affairs. It is more about China’s attempts to continue to expand its presence in the strategically critical Indian Ocean Region (IOR). While traditionally Maldivian leaders were adept at balancing China and India in their foreign policy calculus, Muizzu has allowed himself to become a pawn in Beijing’s manoeuvrings.

The Indian Ocean is at the heart of major power contestation in the emerging strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific which can be considered the central locus of contemporary geopolitics and geoeconomics. Delhi’s push for leadership in IOR is key to consummating its ‘manifest destiny’ in its neighbourhood. Delhi has also long recognised that its future as a great power on the international stage, a key national goal, is closely linked to its leadership in the Indian Ocean, a linkage noted by India’s influential geo-strategist and diplomat KM Panikkar who claimed that to safeguard India’s future “the Indian Ocean must therefore remain truly Indian.” More recently, all Indian leaders have pursued this idea vigorously.

If former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee claimed that India’s “security environment ranges from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca across the Indian Ocean” and, therefore, India’s “strategic thinking has also to extend those horizons,” his successor Manmohan Singh called on India to become a “net provider of security” in IOR. In 2015, Modi articulated New Delhi’s vision of maritime cooperation in the IOR as Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). It emphasises cooperative security mechanisms, economic integration, and sustainable development across IOR, connecting nations through shared interests and responsibilities.

Against the backdrop of the demise of the Cold War order in IOR, India’s rise as a great power and China’s growing influence in IOR, which might thwart Delhi’s ambitions, India has sought to establish close maritime partnerships with key geopolitical players in the region, such as Australia, South Africa, Singapore, Japan and, most importantly, the US. Such relations are aimed at not only constraining China’s power in IOR and increasing the Indian Navy’s experience and interoperability with other navies, but also at setting up the basis for future partnerships. Such relations would confer recognition to India’s status as a leader in IOR from the other major players in the region, including the US.

Delhi has also aimed at using maritime governance institutions and networks to integrate all or part of the region to promote its economic and strategic integration, thus creating a space in which Indian influence can grow. This is one of the reasons why Delhi has been an ardent proponent of greater institutionalisation of governance in IOR and of increased economic interaction among the countries in the region, particularly within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). India employs maritime governance organisations to establish itself as the indispensable leader among states in IOR and enshrine its leading role during the crucial early stages of institutional consolidation.

With IOR emerging as a critical node in the Indo-Pacific maritime space, the agency of regional states has also grown as major powers vie for their attention. The Maldives is not the only country enjoying this strategic leverage. But India’s policy options have only grown in recent years. As Delhi’s ties with Malé took a downturn, it upped the ante on its ties with Mauritius, with Modi and his Mauritian counterpart, Pravind Jugnauth, jointly inaugurating a new airstrip and jetty on the Mauritian archipelago of Agaléga last month. Earlier this month, India commissioned INS Jatayu at Minicoy in the Lakshadweep islands, the second naval base there, aimed at enhancing the operational reach of the Navy in IOR.

India remains in search of a balanced approach towards IOR, asserting its presence while fostering cooperation to ensure a secure, prosperous, and rules-based IOR conducive to its strategic and economic interests. But as the waters of the Indo-Pacific continue their geopolitical churn, New Delhi will have to be constantly on its guard.

The article was first published in Open as China’s Man in Malé on 15 March, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more by the author:

The Maldives’ China Tilt: Implications for Regional Security

A New Chapter? Developments in Russia-North Korea Relations

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Christeena Sabu, a research intern at IMPRI.

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