For India, losing goodwill in the Maldives can prove costly, especially in the light of the Chinese strategy of 'String of Pearls'. Eliminating Indian influence from South Asia outright may be an impossible goal. But developments over the last two decades have shown that China has steadily encroached and made gains in India's backyard

It is often the case that smaller but strategically important nations become the stage of competition between bigger powers vying for regional supremacy. The Republic of Maldives or simply, Maldives, isn't an exception. The Indian Ocean archipelago has a population of less than half a million and the cumulative land area doesn't even hit the 300 square kilometres mark. But its proximity to vital internal maritime trade routes and involvement in Sino-Indian rivalry has always kept Maldives in geopolitical focus. The result of the recently concluded presidential elections and the victory of pro-China candidate Mohamed Muizzu has again made the Maldives hit global headlines and made foreign policy mandarins across the world turn heads and take notice.

Maldives, a tourist hub famous for its pristine tropical beaches, is traditionally seen to be part of India's sphere of influence. It is just 70 nautical miles away from India's Minicoy Island and 300 nautical miles away from India's Western Coast. Maldives' position in the northern Indian Ocean keeps it squarely in the vicinity of waters patrolled and even dominated by Indian Navy warships. India has deep cultural, ethnic and political ties to Maldives that go back centuries.

India knows this and the confidence is almost always reflected in statements and government documents. Describing India-Maldives bilateral relations, India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) declares in a document dated June 3, 2023, that "India has a pre-eminent position in the Maldives" with ties in "virtually most areas".

India, through its naval assets, has often been the first to rush to help Maldives in case of natural disasters like the 2004 Tsunami and the 2014 water crisis. India has likewise flexed its military muscle in Maldives by helping the government against an attempted military coup in 1988. India maintains a small military presence in the island nation.

The victory of Mohamed Muizzu, a pro-China candidate in the recently concluded presidential election in Maldives is likely to alter regional equations considerably. Muizzu will be the successor of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who currently holds the office.

Under Solih, Maldives pushed for stronger ties with New Delhi through the "India First" policy. The initiative resulted in several agreements and even permission for India to operate small military detachments.

"India Out"

Muizzu, who secured 54 per cent vote in Saturday's (Sep 30) runoff election hinged his campaign on the "India Out" platform. Seen as an ally of former Maldives president Abdulla Yameen, another pro-China leader, Muizzu has chosen to term Indian military presence in Maldives an attack on the country's sovereignty. It will not be an overstatement to state that the goodwill India enjoyed under President Solih for the last five years is likely to fade in favour of China.

President Solih pursued a China-sceptic policy in the last few years. China is keen on a free-trade agreement with Maldives.

The logic of a 'free-trade' deal between the two nations is counterintuitive as any such deal will clearly and overwhelmingly benefit China, an economic powerhouse with a USD 17 trillion economy compared to Maldives's USD 5 billion. Solih has kept the Chinese at bay by keeping the deal in a virtual cold storage. 

With Muizzu at the helm in the not-so-distant future, there is a strong possibility that talks over the deal will gain pace.

There are so many examples of the 'Chinese debt trap' across the world. The usual 'debt for equity' method by which China buries a smaller nation in debt and then demands strategic assets is by now well-known. Maldivians need not look far away from their coasts to know what this is. The way China grabbed a 99-year lease of Sri Lanka's Hambantota port was evident of its strategy.

It would be wrong to suggest that for India, Maldives is just an outpost taking care of its security interests. India is deeply involved in infrastructure development projects in the country and has for years, offered countless opportunities to Maldivian citizens in fields like education, healthcare and more. It has been training Maldivian security officials in Indian military academies and even encouraging youngsters from the country to explore opportunities in India.

The Chinese Allure And What India Can Do About It

Debt trap or not, China has a proven track record of rapid completion of infrastructure projects. This has enabled it to win major initial brownie points among underdeveloped nations in Asia and Africa which are more concerned about the fulfilment of their very basic requirements than speculative analysis of global geopolitics. India has stepped up its game surely, but it remains notoriously slow when it comes to such endeavours. India needs to fine-tune its game on this front to match its strategic ambitions with actual delivery. China has a decisive advantage as its pockets are much deeper than India's. India needs to play wisely in order to not overstretch.

Another important thing, especially in the South Asian context, is the Indian notion of being the 'big brother'. The unease among SAARC nations, barring Pakistan, about Indian assertiveness during striking deals is somewhat common knowledge.

India needs to examine if years of such manoeuvres have had a cumulative effect on the formation of a clear anti-India sentiment among political elites in South Asian countries which previously were seen to have firm, favourable ties with India. For a shrewd politician in search of a political plank in these countries, blaming an entrenched India has the potential of getting him limelight. Such a poll pitch may even find resonance among the public, much like anti-incumbency but in this limited context, a foreign power that is India. Has this happened in the Maldives? More ground reporting may be necessary to conclusively say that.

For India, losing goodwill in the Maldives can prove costly, especially in the light of the Chinese strategy of 'String of Pearls'. Eliminating Indian influence from South Asia outright may be an impossible goal. However, developments over the last two decades have shown that China has steadily encroached and made gains in India's backyard.

In diminishing Indian importance in the Indian Ocean region, China is seeking to create a bulwark against possible Indian strategy (in theory) of blocking the Strait of Malacca which can choke China's oil supply in the event of a war. Not many years ago, this was seen as an ace in Indian hands and a deterrent against Chinese aggression by land across India's northern border. With China seeking to firm up its presence in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean region, the effectiveness of the Malacca Strait strategy suddenly appears diminished.

Developments in Maldives are therefore not to be taken lightly. After Hambantota, India can simply not afford the formation of a Chinese base, even with a commercial fa├žade, in waters that bear its name.