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Muizzu’s ‘India Out, China In’ campaign

Muizzu’s ‘India Out, China In’ campaign

Muizzu will do well to learn from Sri Lanka’s experience of China’s predatory policies and understand that antagonising India is not going to serve Maldives well.

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Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 20:46 IST
Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 20:46 IST
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Maldives’ recent elections on April 22 threw a surprise, pointing to the popularity of President Muizzu’s ‘India Out, China In’ campaign. The swell of support to Muizzu’s People’s National Congress, which won an absolute majority in the island-nation’s 93-member parliament, is stirring up the Indian Ocean.

Last September, about 85% of Maldives’ 282,000 eligible voters brought Muizzu to power, displacing incumbent Ibrahim Solih. Muizzu’s campaign included the ‘India Out’ campaign to remove Indian military personnel from the country.

By implication and choice, this campaign was also to bring in China again into Maldives. In doing so, Muizzu is following his mentor and former President Abdulla Yameen’s policies. Yameen, during his tenure, awarded Chinese companies contracts for several projects, involving leasing of islands, and in 2015 pushed through parliament a Free Trade Agreement without much debate. Yameen, who had been jailed on charges of corruption by the Solih government, has just been acquitted of the charges.

Muizzu visited Beijing this January, ending the Solih-Nasheed government’s ‘India First’ policy to bring in China in the country’s economy, tourism and security aspects. Muizzu signed several agreements with China, all designed to further Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Global Development Initiative (GDI), and other Chinese initiatives. In March, at Beijing’s behest, the two countries signed two security agreements, providing China dual-use facilities in the region.

Earlier, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Maldives in 2014, China had signed an agreement to build a housing project and the 15-km Laamu Link Road project connecting four islands of the atoll. The project was completed in two years.

In April this year, Maldives’ ports authority signed a pact with a Chinese company to develop the Laamu Integrated Maritime Hub Project with trans-shipment and bunkering facilities and also develop an airport at Kadhdhoo Island. Another project that China Harbor Engineering Company is developing – the ‘Uthuru Thila Falhu’ – is next to the Maldives defence establishment, a project that was India’s earlier.

China is also eyeing a revival of the iHavan trans-shipment project signed in 2015. The iHavan seven-degree channel overlooks the passage of over $18 trillion worth of goods in trade annually.

China has been securing, and seeking to dominate, the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean since 2009, when it adopted a “two-ocean strategy” for the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China cites its oil imports through the Indian Ocean for its naval deployments, but its real objective is to challenge the US position (Diego Garcia) and India in the Indian Ocean.

After militarising the South China Sea and denying space there to the “extra-regional” powers like the US, India and others, China has brought the offensive to the Indian Ocean, with its ships docking in Chinese-leased Hambantota and Colombo ports in Sri Lanka in 2022 and 2023, despite Indian objections, and in Maldives recently, to conduct surveillance, study sea-bed resources, and to find docking facilities for its submarines, which are coming into these waters with increasing frequency. China also wants to use Hambantota port as a refuelling station for its warships.

Muizzu will do well, however, to learn from Sri Lanka’s experience of China’s predatory policies and understand that antagonising India is not going to serve Maldives well. Moreover, he should worry about his Maldives’ vulnerability to environmental degradation caused by dredging projects for land reclamation involved in many China-initiated projects. Maldives already faces the threat of all its 1,200 islands being submerged by 2100 as the sea level rises.

Importantly, Muizzu would do well to remind himself who Maldives can turn to in any crisis: In October 1988, when the then Maldivian leadership needed security and help to thwart a coup bid, it was India that carried out Operation Cactus; when its capital city of Male faced an urgent water supply crisis in 2014, China needed more than a week to respond, whereas India provided relief in no time. Muizzu should trust geography, if not India’s generosity. He may have heard of a proverb from his Chinese friends that “a near neighbour is better than a distant friend!”

India, too, needs to understand and respond to the popular support to Muizzu’s party in the recent elections. Delhi should help to further strengthen the democratic process in Maldives, support its civil society groups, alert its people to Beijing’s predatory policies, and provide assistance in a sustainable manner.

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