The dream island of Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean. India and China are fighting for influence in the island nation to strengthen their regional dominance. Now this is an advantage for Beijing.
His main campaign slogan was “India out!” Mohamed Muizzu has now won the second round of the Maldivian presidential election and will take office in November. With 54 percent of the vote, the capital’s previous mayor, Malé, sent the India-friendly incumbent, Ibrahim Solih, into opposition. And with it an entire country: India. Traditionally, the Maldives has always been part of New Delhi’s sphere of influence. In this case, the election of the 45-year-old Muizzu is also a winning point for Beijing in the long-distance duel for supremacy in the Indian Ocean.
The reason is, the Maldives is not just a place longing for sun-hungry tourists. But it is also strategically located in the middle of the Indian Ocean: 300 nautical miles southwest of the tip of the Indian subcontinent, close to international maritime trade routes. Chinese oil shipments from the Gulf region pass through the islands. Therefore, the People’s Republic of China has been struggling with India for influence on the paradise island for some time. The Maldives is closer to India compared to China, which is thousands of kilometers further east. But China has long projected its naval power deep into the Indian Ocean. Chinese ships are involved in international operations against pirates off the coast of the Horn of Africa. And China has its only overseas naval base in the tiny Red Sea nation of Djibouti.
A small island nation of great geostrategic importance
Small but strategically important countries have repeatedly become an arena for competition between large countries vying for regional dominance. Only about 500,000 people, mostly Muslims, live in the Maldives. The land area of this archipelago of 1,200 islands and atolls is less than 300 square kilometers – 80 percent of which is expected to be uninhabitable by 2050 due to climate change and related sea level rise.
But China has shown in the South Pacific that it considers small island states strategically important enough to forge alliances with them. For example, Beijing signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands – which raised alarm bells in Australia and the United States. Since then, the US has become active again in the Pacific and has sought to build alliances there.
Maldives: seesaw politics between China and India
The rivalry between these major powers became a fault line in Maldivian domestic politics about ten years ago. The Maldives only gained independence from Britain in 1965 and was under direct Indian influence for four decades. The Maldives has been a democracy since 2008. The break with India occurred in 2103. At that time, Abdulla Yameen was president – and he suddenly turned to China.
Under Yameen’s administration, the island nation joined China’s New Silk Road infrastructure program and signed a trade agreement with Beijing. Yameen is seeking Chinese loans for tourism and infrastructure projects. At that time, China, among other things, built a new runway at an international airport and a large housing complex on artificial land. Criticism has emerged that Yameen is pushing the country into China’s debt trap. He also acted increasingly autocratic.
So in the 2018 elections, Solih, another politician who is also friendly to India, came to power. “Great damage is caused by projects that are only implemented for political reasons and cause losses,” he complained at his inauguration. He implemented an “India first” policy and withdrew from Yameen’s trade agreement with Beijing. In return, India agreed to $1.4 billion to help Maldives repay loans to China. India is also providing funding for community development projects, a new cancer hospital, a new port and further airport modernization. India was allowed to station a small military regiment in the Maldives. In 2022, his Chinese friend, Yameen, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for corruption.
China wants more in the Maldives
Muizzu now wants to expel these Indian soldiers from his country, something he promised during the election campaign. He accused the government of endangering national security by deploying Indian troops and giving too much influence to New Delhi. This happens because of the proliferation of Islamic groups, including; the mood again turned against India. Last year, Muizzu told a delegation of Chinese Communist Party officials that his party’s return to the presidency would “write a new chapter in the strong relations between the two countries.” China should be happy with the results. At least for the next five years, Beijing will again become the number one superpower in the Maldives. On the other hand, tourists from all over the world probably don’t care who rules Malé: they come for the tropical beaches of their dreams.
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