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The Maldives is a key player in the Indian Ocean, positioning itself to benefit from India and China’s rivalry.

The Maldives has become a playground for strategic competition between the big powers in Asia. : Ondřej Havelka CCBY4.0 The Maldives has become a playground for strategic competition between the big powers in Asia. : Ondřej Havelka CCBY4.0

The Maldives is a key player in the Indian Ocean, positioning itself to benefit from India and China’s rivalry.

India is about to start withdrawing its military personnel from the Maldives – 80 men in uniform who operate two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft that provide humanitarian and medical services in the Indian Ocean nation.

After years of close relations with India, the Maldives elected a new president, Mohamed Muizzu, last year. One of his first directives on assuming office was that India withdraw its “military presence” from the archipelago.

Muizzu is widely perceived to be “pro-China”. But that is not the whole story.

The domestic politics of the Maldives tends to swing between pro-India and pro-China political players and has considerable impact on its foreign policy.

Muizzu’s predecessor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, for example, was close to New Delhi and resolutely maintained an “India First” policy. Now the pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme.

The Maldives has become a playground for strategic competition between the big powers in Asia.

Its geostrategic location makes it important for both Asian giants – India and China.

Maritime scholars describe the Maldives as the “toll gate” between the western Indian Ocean chokepoints of the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz and the eastern Indian Ocean chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca.

More than half of India’s external trade and 80 percent of its energy imports passes through the sea-lanes close to the Maldives.

For China 80 percent of its crude oil imports from the Gulf pass through the Strait of Malacca. Experts believe that over-dependence on the Strait of Malacca increases China’s energy supply vulnerability.

Over cautiousness of China about the Indian Ocean region sea lanes is often described as its “Malacca dilemma” – a possible scenario when an antagonist blocks the sea lanes. To avoid this, China has invested heavily in its navy with special focus on the Indian Ocean.

Beijing is especially apprehensive of US and Indian influence in the Indian Ocean. It perhaps believes that a deepening Indo-US partnership, especially in the Indo-Pacific context, can make things difficult for it as well.

Aware of these potential challenges, China has sought to increase its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. It now has a formidable presence at strategically located ports such as  Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

Gwadar, which is part of the China -Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Belt and Road Initiative, is just 400km from India. The port is managed by China Overseas Port Holding Company, which is under a legal obligation to support the People’s Liberation Army’s overseas operation, if and when necessary.

The Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is controlled by the China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited and is also a cause of concern for India.

China is involved in building or financing 17 ports in the region, of which it is directly involved in the construction of 13.

In 2017, China established a military base in Djibouti and it is now eyeing to expand its military presence in Africa.

With a strong Chinese presence in the Maldives, the so-called “string of pearls” strategy of surrounding India with its strategic naval presence in the Indian Ocean will reach its logical conclusion.

In 2022, China also launched the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development and Cooperation.

In the forum’s second meeting in 2023, more than 350 representatives from 30 countries participated. The central theme was “Boosting Sustainable Blue Economy to Build Together a Maritime Community with a Shared Future”.

These are all examples of Chinese focus on defending its strategic interest in the Indian Ocean, if not dominating it.

India has taken serious note of Chinese strategic expansion.

It has followed a two-pronged strategy to safeguard its interests.

India has tried to consolidate its position in the region by investing in its armed forces and developing better ties with countries in the region. It also launched an initiative called SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) in 2015.

The SAGAR plan seeks to build a climate of trust and openness, address regional concerns, increase maritime cooperation, resolve maritime issues in a peaceful manner and enjoins all Indian Ocean countries to adhere to international maritime rules and norms.

It is one of India’s biggest maritime diplomatic initiatives encompassing security, economic and ecological issues. It projects India as the “net security provider” in the region.

Apart from the SAGAR initiative, India started the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in 2008 to foster better maritime ties with the navies of Indian Ocean  states.  There are 25 members and eight observers, including China.

In 1992 India initiated the “Dosti (Friendship)” exercise to link  the Coast Guard forces of India and the Maldives. Sri Lanka joined in 2012.

Recently, ‘Dosti-16’ was held in the Maldives, even when there were ongoing controversies about the presence of Indian military personnel in the country.

The second prong of the Indian strategy is to develop closer alliances with the US and other Western powers active in the Indian Ocean. The increasing engagement of India in the region and the close military cooperation between the Quad nations are indicators of this.

In recent months, India-Maldives relations have captured the headlines not only because of the “notice” served on India to remove its military personnel.

There have also been acerbic statements about India by Maldivian ministers trying to woo tourists away from the Maldives and media commentary in India critical of President Muizzu’s government.

The change in government in Maldives is usually cited as the reason. But  this is not the whole story.

It ignores the underlying intensity of the Sino-India competition in the region. Tension on the China-India border in the Himalayas remains high and India is apprehensive about the increasing footprint of China in South Asia, while China is suspicious of the growing defence cooperation between India and the West.

There is a larger political tussle between the two Asian heavyweights going on in the Indian Ocean and it is likely to be ongoing and not going to be limited to only the Maldives.

Dhananjay Tripathi is Chairperson and Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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