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March 13, 2024 Special Dispatch No. 11197

Indian Media Outlet NDTV: China's Foothold In The Indian Ocean Region Grows As China, The Maldives Sign Defense Agreement

March 13, 2024
China | Special Dispatch No. 11197

On March 11, 2024, the Indian media outlet NDTV published an article, titled "Muizzu's China Tilt Hurts Maldives Far More Than India" and written by Indian academic Harsh V. Pant, professor of International Relations at King's College London, commenting on the recent Maldives-China defense agreement.

On March 4, during a visit by a Chinese military delegation headed by Major General Zhang Baoqun to the Maldives, pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu government, which came to power on an anti-Indian platform, signed a defense agreement with China after sending Indian military personnel away from the country.[1]

Analyzing the consequences of the agreement, NDTV stated: "For Muizzu, Male's sovereignty gets strangely affected when dealing with a transparent democratic India but not with a Communist authoritarian China... The defense pact itself will be viewed seriously by India as China's growing foothold in the Indian Ocean region has long been a matter of concern for Indian policymakers. That China's maritime presence will grow in the Indian Ocean region has long been a given. But for regional nations to have a one-sided approach when it comes to Indian concerns is an entirely different matter and one that is likely to only lead to more regional turbulence."

Following is NDTV's article, written by Harsh V. Pant:[2]


On the afternoon of January 10, 2024, President Xi Jinping held talks at the Great Hall of the People with President of the Maldives Mohamed Muizzu, who was in China for a state visit. The two heads of state announced the elevation of China-Maldives relations to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership." (Source: Gr.china-embassy.gov.cn)


During the meeting
on January 10, 2024, it was stressed that "the elevation of bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership [between China and the Maldives] meets the development needs of bilateral relations and the expectations of the two peoples." (Source: Gr.china-embassy.gov.cn)


Xi Jinping stressed that "China respects and supports the Maldives in exploring a development path suited to its national conditions, and firmly supports the Maldives in safeguarding its national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity. China stands ready to exchange governance experience with the Maldives, strengthen the synergy of development strategies, advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, and set a new benchmark for the China-Maldives friendship. The two sides should strengthen cooperation in such areas as economy, trade and investment, agricultural parks, and the blue, green and digital economies, expand cooperation on such areas as marine ecological and environmental protection, and strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges." (Source: Gr.china-embassy.gov.cn)


Prior to the talks, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan held a welcoming ceremony for Muizzu and his wife Sajidha Mohamed at the North Hall of the Great Hall of the People. Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan held a welcoming banquet for Muizzu and his wife at the Golden Hall of the Great Hall of the People in the evening. (Source: Gr.china-embassy.gov.cn)

"The Muizzu Government Remains Keener Than Its Predecessors To Tilt Towards China"

"Last week, the Maldives and China signed a defense pact 'on China's provision of military assistance gratis to the Republic of Maldives,' underlining Male's continued shift away from India under the government of President Mohamed Muizzu. This not only marks a notable shift in geopolitical alignment for the Maldives, but it also provides China another opportunity to extend its military presence in the Indian Ocean region. This agreement is another indication that the Muizzu government remains keener than its predecessors to tilt towards China, but, coupled with its public ultimatum to India that its minuscule military presence should be terminated immediately, it also underscores a new strategic reality in the Indian Ocean region, one that could alter regional dynamics, prompting New Delhi and other global powers to reassess their policy options in the strategically vital maritime space.


On March 5, 2024, Major General Zhang Baoqun, Deputy Director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of the People's Republic of China met with President Dr Mohamed Muizzu today. The meeting was held at the President's Office. (Source: Presidency.gov.mv)


On March 5, 2024, Muizzu met with China Ambassador to the Maldives Wang Lixin and Preisdnet of the Export-Import Bank of China Ren Shengjun. (Source: Presidency.gov.mv)


Minister of Defence Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon and Major General Zhang Baoqun, Deputy Director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of the People's Republic of China, signed an agreement on China's provision of military assistance gratis to the Republic of Maldives, fostering stronger bilateral ties." (Source: twitter.com/MoDmv)

Muizzu's "India Out" Pitch Made Him "The Darling Of Islamist Forces As Well As Beijing"

"The Maldives-China defense agreement itself remains shrouded in secrecy. The only known aspect is that the Chinese military would be providing free 'non-lethal' military equipment and training to the island nation. Beyond that, no specific details about this pact are in the public domain. 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 into a defense pact with a country like China, which is known for opaque arrangements.

"For Muizzu, Male's sovereignty gets strangely affected when dealing with a transparent democratic India but not with a Communist authoritarian China. The long-term implications of Male's China pact, of course, will be borne by the people of the Maldives.

"That Muizzu would reconfigure his nation's foreign policy was evident from the very beginning when he made India the centerpiece of his election campaign. His 'India Out' pitch made him the darling of Islamist forces as well as Beijing, whose designs on Male were effectively foiled by [former president of the Maldives from 2018 to 2023] Ibrahim Solih. Yet, New Delhi made a conscientious outreach to Muizzu once he assumed the presidency, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself taking the lead. It did not work as was expected, though what was not expected was the kind of malevolence that the Muizzu administration has been showing towards India. It is natural among close neighbors to have disagreements, but to convert them into public disrespect is neither desirable nor prudent.


Many important Sea Lines of communications (SLOCs) pass through the Indian Ocean which makes the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) very important. Therefore, great powers, including India and China, are working to increase their presence in the region." (Source: Samvadaworld.com)

"The Consequences Of This Behavior Will Be Far-Reaching Not Only For New Delhi-Male Bilateral Ties But Also For Regional Geopolitics"

"The consequences of this behavior will be far-reaching not only for New Delhi-Male bilateral ties but also for regional geopolitics. The defense pact itself will be viewed seriously by India as China's growing foothold in the Indian Ocean region has long been a matter of concern for Indian policymakers. That China's maritime presence will grow in the Indian Ocean region has long been a given. But for regional nations to have a one-sided approach when it comes to Indian concerns is an entirely different matter and one that is likely to only lead to more regional turbulence.

"Muizzu's pronounced China tilt has already divided the polity and society in the Maldives. Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed publicly stated last week that the 'people of Maldives are sorry'[3] and underscored New Delhi's mature policy response to Muizzu's adversarial approach. Instead of using his election victory to bring a divided nation together, Muizzu seems to have doubled down on his divisive agenda. The long-term implications will naturally be deleterious for the island nation.

"But it has also exposed the Maldives to wider geopolitical tumult, which is shaping much of the rest of the world. It is not only New Delhi that will take due cognizance of the Chinese toehold in the country - other major players are also going to refashion their approach towards Male, given the centrality of the Indian Ocean region as the key faultline in the global politics of today. India enjoys strong partnerships with major global and regional players, and that will impact the future foreign policy trajectory of Male in more ways than one."

"For India, The Indian Ocean Maritime Space Is Indeed Critical"

"India, meanwhile, is already looking beyond and reconfiguring its own approach. The Indian Navy has already commissioned its new naval base, INS Jatayu, on Lakshadweep's Minicoy island about 130 kilometers north of the Maldives last week to enhance its 'operational surveillance' capabilities.

"Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Mauritian counterpart Pravind Jugnauth jointly inaugurated a new airstrip and jetty on the Mauritian archipelago of Agaléga,[4] allowing India to station and deploy large aircrafts in the island. New Delhi's ties with other Indian Ocean littoral states remain strong, and newer regional arrangements, such as the Colombo Security Conclave, are gathering pace. Though Male decided to give last year's meeting a skip, Mauritius became a member in 2022 and Bangladesh and Seychelles have been attending it as observers.

"For India, the Indian Ocean maritime space is indeed critical, and while troubled ties with the Maldives underscore a temporary setback, New Delhi's options are not limited. But the Muizzu government's inability to forge a balanced approach in its foreign policy might jeopardize Male's own strategic autonomy amidst the roiling waters of the Indian Ocean."

 

[1] Aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/maldives-signs-military-aid-pact-with-china/3155634, March 5, 2024.

[2] Ndtv.com/opinion/india-can-survive-muizzus-china-tilt-maldives-may-lose-much-more-5216422, March 11, 2024.

[3] Hindustantimes.com/world-news/people-of-maldives-sorry-ex-president-nasheed-apologises-to-india-urges-muizzu-to-end-anti-india-calls-101709916950833.html, March 9, 2024.

[4] Indianexpress.com/article/explained/agalega-airstrip-inagurated-mauritius-maldives-and-india-9189103/#:~:text=On%20Thursday%20(February%2029)%2C,2%2C500%20km%20southwest%20of%20Mal%C3%A9, March 1, 2024.

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