Why is the Maldives important to China?

The Chinese-backed projects in the Maldives have raised many security concerns for India, the United States and its allies. China is paying to woo India’s island neighbors in the Indian Ocean, particularly the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

by Col R Hariharan

China’s use of the commander of the PLA regiment involved in the 2020 Galwan clash as a Winter Olympics torchbearer had drawn criticism not only from India, but also from its QUAD ally, the United States. India regretted the incident as China’s attempt to politicize the Games, while the United States described it as “shameful” and deliberately “provocative”. The use of the PLA commander in a global meeting is not just a provocative move by China to steer India. This is a small sample of the “war by other means” (“non-contact war” in military jargon) that China is currently waging in the Indo-Pacific theater.

While China’s misuse of the PLA commander in the torch relay has garnered enough publicity, few have likely noticed the torch bearer, who exchanged the flame with the final torch bearer, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee. He was Abdulla Shahid, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives and President of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. It was probably a heartwarming moment for the Maldives, one of the smallest countries in the world with barely 300m² of land, to see its foreign minister receive this honor at the Olympics. There is no doubt that Shahid’s position as the current president of the United Nations General Assembly helped the Chinese decision. But it showed China’s keen attention to courting India’s island neighbors in the Indian Ocean, particularly the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The Maldives is a chain of 26 atolls, stretching from Ihavandhippolhu atoll in the north to Addu atoll in the south, spanning 90,000 km2 of territory across the equator and having few resources. The Maldives archipelago is located on the Chagos-Lakshadweep Ridge, a vast underwater chain in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is located 750 km southwest of India and Sri Lanka. Historically, the Maldives has ethnic, religious and cultural connectivity with India and Sri Lanka. The Maldivian language Dhivehi is a dialect of Sinhalese and with a script derived from Arabic. In fact, Minicoy, the southernmost and second largest island in the union territory of Lakshadweep, is home to around 12,000 Mahl of Maldivian ethnicity.

Relations between the Maldives and India have been close since the end of colonial rule in 1965 and the transformation of the Maldives into a republic. It was India that first responded to President Maumoon Gayoom’s call for help to thwart a coup attempt in 1988. After Mohamed Nasheed came to power in 2008, the Maldives signed a defense cooperation agreement with India in 2009. Under this agreement, India would install 26 radars. on all the atolls to liaise with the Indian Coastal Command. The Indian Navy and the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) carry out joint surveillance and patrol activities. India was quick to provide aid and relief during the 2004 tsunami and when the country faced a drinking water crisis in 2014.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted a “neighborhood first” policy when he came to power in 2014, relations between India and the Maldives have been further strengthened. India is involved in a number of projects such as the Greater Male Connectivity Project, Cargo Vessel Services and Capacity Building and Training of MNDF and Maldives Officials in India and the Gulhifalhu Port Project. The Indian Defense Forces and the MNDF regularly organize joint exercises. Even during the rule of Abdulla Yameen who was biased in favor of China, he downplayed his anti-India rhetoric to go to New Delhi and sign the Indo-Maldivian Defense Action Plan. India has provided a Dornier surveillance plane to the Maldives to monitor Chinese vessels as well as the evacuation of injured people from remote islands and to prevent poaching and drug trafficking in Maldivian waters. The American military base located on the atoll of Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago, 1713 km from the Maldives, has been used during American operations in Afghanistan. Its strategic importance increased after the establishment of the Quadrilateral Framework for Indo-Pacific Security.

The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean rose after the launch of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 to increase China’s strategic reach across continents. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is the ocean part of the BRI infrastructure connectivity. It allows China to ensure the passage of its international maritime trade through the bottlenecks of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives and Sri Lanka are important hubs for the MSR’s success, especially after the Quad framework has begun to take shape.

President Xi Jinping was the first Chinese head of state to visit the Maldives since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1972. His visit to the Maldives on May 15, 2014, en route to Sri Lanka and India , stressed the importance of the island nation in Xi’s strategic strategy. awareness within the framework of the BRI.

Although Chinese companies have been involved in project contracts in the Maldives since 1985, they surged forward after President Yameen came to power, with a strong pro-China stance and marked hostility towards India. in 2013. Yameen not only responded to Xi’s invitation to join the MSR during his visit but also signed a free trade pact with China a few months later.

During Yameen’s tenure as president until 2018, a number of Chinese infrastructure and investment projects were executed. The Male-Hulhumale Bridge, designed in 2007, was built by China Harbor Engineering Company at a cost of $210 million. Similarly, Beijing Urban Construction Group replaced Indian contractor GMR, to complete the Malé International Airport expansion project in Hulhumale in 2018.

A Chinese public limited company has acquired Feydhoo Finolhu, a small islet with an area of ​​half a square mile, located three nautical miles from the Maldivian capital, Malé, on a 50-year lease for a price of 4 million dollars in December 2016. However, the Finolhu Beach complex of 125 private villas with a dock for transporting guests built on the property is now fully functional. Similarly, CJL Investment promoted a joint venture of Guangdong Beta Oceans and a Maldivian partner, took Kunaavashi Island in Vaavu Atoll, 35 nautical miles from Male, on a 50-year lease to build a complex. An Australian company now manages the La Vie hotels and resorts there.

However, the opaque process of Chinese-aided projects and widespread corruption in the Maldives have raised many security concerns for India, the United States and its allies. A good example is the Joint Ocean Observatory project in Makhunudhoo, the westernmost island, finalized in 2017 by the Chinese State Oceanic Administration. India feared that China would use it to observe more than ocean conditions. At the urging of India, the Maldives abandoned the project in 2019.

The 2018 election was marred by President Yameen’s misuse of state resources, police interference in opposition campaigns and election officials’ manipulations in favor of the Maldives Progressive Party (PPM) of Yameen. After former President Nasheed was disqualified on an unproven terrorism charge in 2015, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) nominated Ibrahim Mohammed Solih. He got 58% of the vote, with Yameen getting less than 42%. Today, the Maldives is ruled by a coalition of the MDP, the Jumhooree party, the Maldivian Reform Movement (MRF) led by former president Maumoon Gayoom and the conservative Adhaalath party.

Solih came to power with a $1.4 billion debt accumulated by the Yameen government, mostly to the Chinese. He is trying to find ways to pay off this debt. It has tried to improve accountability, root out corruption, tone up the judiciary, and improve gender equity with some success. It has yet to tackle the persistent Islamist extremist threat. Solih signed a defense agreement with the United States and another agreement with Japan to strengthen the MNDF coast guard. India and the United States have both assisted the Maldives by providing them with vaccines and medical equipment to fight the Covid-19 pandemic; so, did China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a whirlwind trip to the Maldives in January 2022 and reviewed some of the BRI projects.

Yameen was sentenced to five years in prison in a money laundering case in November 2019. However, the Maldives Supreme Court overturned his conviction. A few days after his release, the PPM, the main opposition party, launched the “India Out” campaign. Although Yameen explained that he was only targeting the presence of Indian security forces in the Maldives, this is probably a political curtain-raiser for the year 2022.

China has strengthened its presence in the Maldives. As India reaffirms its presence in the Indian Ocean region, how China will enhance its role in the Maldives in 2022 remains an open question.

The author is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Center for China Studies

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