As India-China rivalry grows, so will the significance of the Maldives

Ashraf Engineer

March 9, 2024


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

The diplomatic row between India and the Maldives seems to have calmed at least for the moment with behind-the-scenes dialogue replacing the public acrimony. This does not mean, of course, that the government of President Mohamed Muizzu has stepped back on its demand to have Indian troops off Maldivian soil or that China has stopped pressuring the Indian Ocean archipelago to keep India at arm’s length. We haven’t seen the end of this geopolitical tug and pull – and we won’t for a while to come. But, let’s try to answer a fundamental question: why is this tiny collection of islands so important to India?


It all began on January 4 this year on social media. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lakshadweep and posted pictures from there. In response, many asked why anyone should go to the Maldives when there was such an island paradise in India. The context to this was that the new Maldivian government, headed by Muizzu, is pro-China. In fact, Muizzu and former President Abdullah Yameen had led the recent ‘India Out’ campaign.

One thing led to another and some Maldivian ministers and MPs used derogatory language against Modi. That turned into a diplomatic issue.

With the election won, Muizzu can’t afford to be as stridently anti-India as he was during the campaign. He now has to maintain a delicate balance, keeping in mind strategic relations with both India and China. So, three of the ministers who posted the derogatory comments against Modi were suspended even as calls to boycott the Maldives grew louder in India. Many vacation seekers cancelled their reservations and some travel portals stopped offering bookings for flights to the Maldives.

The diplomatic row is unfortunate because India and the Maldives have had a long geopolitical relationship that is important to both.

India was one of the first to recognise the Maldives’ independence and establish diplomatic relations. These ties have been good but have been buffeted by the distinct Maldivian slant towards China in recent years.

The Maldives’ location is the key. It is close to the Lakshadweep Islands, a vital spot along major sea lanes. This means that the Maldives is vital for India’s maritime security. To this end, India has built a coastal radar chain there, integrated into its own radar system, thus enhancing surveillance capabilities in the area.

Maldives, incidentally, is the smallest Asian country with a landmass of just 300 sq km and a population of less than 500,000. However, it is one of the most geographically dispersed countries – its islands are scattered along a 960-km-long submarine ridge running north to south and forming a wall in the middle of the Indian Ocean. At the southern and northern parts of this wall are the only two lanes through which ships can pass. Both are vital for maritime trade flow between the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Hormuz in West Asia and the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia.

What this means is that, if the Indian Ocean is a key highway for global trade and energy flow, the Maldives is the access road.

As maritime activity has risen, so has the geopolitical competition in the Indian Ocean. China, looking out for its own strategic interests, is increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean and its engagement with the Maldives rose during Yameen’s presidency. Beijing took up major infrastructure projects, including the upgrading of Male’s international airport and the construction of a bridge linking Male to Hulhumale.

It was in 2013 when India suffered the first setback. That was when Yameen to came to power. This was also when China was laying the groundwork for the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, a global infrastructure development strategy to invest in more than 150 countries. This is a form of diplomacy aimed at establishing and projecting China’s power across the region.

China went on to build several infrastructure projects in the Maldives. Soon, a China-Maldives free trade agreement was signed and Male became part of the BRI. By 2018, Beijing had upgraded Male airport and built the bridge I mentioned earlier between Male and Hulhumale island.

These investments form what are called ‘debt trap diplomacy’. By 2018, Chinese loans meant Male was dealing with a debt of $1.5 billion – astronomical for a nation with a GDP of less than $9 billion. Naturally, Male is now vulnerable to demands that it put China’s interests first.

But there was a twist in the tale. Mohamed Ibrahim Solih won the presidency in 2018 and there was a shift back towards India. His ‘India First’ policy led to New Delhi supporting community development projects and infrastructure development. Among the initiatives planned were a cancer hospital and a cricket stadium. This was in keeping with India’s long-standing relationship with the Maldives that has encompassed defence, and economic and humanitarian projects. India has also been the first responder in times of crisis, such as during the 1988 coup attempt and the 2014 water crisis in Male.

Solih pulled out of the trade deal with Beijing and India authorised $1.4 billion to help him pay back loans.

New Delhi also tried ‘vaccine diplomacy’ by sending 100,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine to Male when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In all, it sent three million shots to six neighbours, of which two, Bhutan and Nepal, were China’s neighbours too.

But now, Muizzu is in power. He has held the view that the presence of Indian soldiers undermines Maldivian sovereignty and he wants them out – a view, no doubt, influenced by China.

How things will play out over the long term remains to be seen but India cannot take its ties with the Maldives for granted or ignore China’s moves in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives, too, has a lot to lose. Roughly 90% of its economy relies on tourism and Indians account for 11% of its tourists. If they continue to boycott the Maldives, it will impact the Maldivian economy. This is not a situation a debt-laden nation can afford.

Meanwhile, the Maldives is rapidly turning into the centre of the latest standoff between India and China. As this rivalry intensifies, so will the significance of the Maldives.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.