Home » Belt & Road: Chinese techno-nationalism in Maldives

Belt & Road: Chinese techno-nationalism in Maldives


The Maldives’ recent turn toward China and away from India has boosted Beijing’s long-term push for regional control and disrupted New Delhi’s ambition to match Chinese strategic competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

On March 12, the Maldives began setting in motion the expulsion of Indian troops on the archipelago, ordered by President Mohamed Muizzu.

As China-Maldives diplomatic alignments strengthen, so also does China’s reach across the contentious Indian Ocean Region, meaning Beijing is well on its way to becoming regional overseer.

China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013, presents Beijing as the Indo-Pacific’s dominant power, with the Maldives having been one of the first countries to join.

The Sinamalé Bridge in the Maldives, built by China as part of the Belt and Road scheme, connects the capital Malé with Hulhumalé and Hulhulé. Photo: People’s Daily

The Digital Silk Road, a flagship project of Belt and Road, epitomizes Beijing’s aim to direct the enhancement of global connectivity, led by Chinese technology companies and telecommunications networks.

The Maldives is an integral part of the digital scheme. The islands’ geostrategic location is critical to China’s plan to establish a maritime route linking China’s coastal areas to Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific, Africa and beyond. The Digital Silk Road poses formidable security and espionage risks for the international community, potentially allowing China to play king of the castle in one of the most strategic areas of the planet.

China’s recent stirring of controversy, over its use of naval patrols near Taiwan as well as a continued standoff with the Philippines, has generated regional security concerns. Against this backdrop of confrontation, the Maldives remains an ambitious partner of Beijing.

Over a decade ago, when Belt and Road was announced, a subsidiary of Huawei signed an agreement with the Maldives to build technological infrastructure in the archipelago, in a project called “SMART Maldives.”

This enormous initiative is slated for completion on the island of Hulhumalé, a region of the North Malé Atoll. With investment from the China Development Bank, the Maldivian Housing Development Corporation – a state-owned enterprise – is set to bring the smart city to life.

The SMART Maldives project would not be possible without colossal investment – in the billions of dollars – from China’s state banks. While there is little mention of China’s involvement by the Housing Development Corporation, China’s heavy influence in the project cannot be masqueraded. Despite being advertised by the Maldivian government as an eco-friendly and fully sustainable city, Hulhumalé is in its essence another means for China to extend its network of influence across the region and the greater world.

In February, a Chinese research vessel made a stop at a Malé port, raising concerns about China’s potential future use of the Maldives as a waypoint for conducting intelligence-gathering missions in the region. The ship, Xiang Yang Hong 03, spent weeks patrolling waters near India and Sri Lanka as well as the Maldives.

Malé, capital of the Maldives. Photo: US Department of State

In 2021, during a previous voyage, Indonesian authorities claimed the same ship turned its tracking system off multiple times.

The independent open-source intelligence analyst known as “WLVN” on X (formerly Twitter) warned on March 6 that China was planning to provide maritime surveillance systems to the Maldives. While it is difficult to authenticate this claim, a defense pact agreed to by Beijing and Malé on March 4 approved sending non-lethal military equipment to the Maldives.

The Maldives’ continued use as a Chinese maritime hub along the Digital Silk Road could result in collaborative military exercises and the sharing of bilateral maritime intelligence.

For China, the Digital Silk Road offers multifaceted benefits. It is a means of expanding Beijing’s national tech corporations in terms of both influence and revenue, through massive market capture.

Companies like Alibaba and Huawei, which already have substantial footholds in Southeast and West Asia, have servicing and operational contracts with their host nations, flooding money into China. Beijing is able to augment its domestic technological capacity with this money.

Additionally, China’s development of connectivity in the Indo-Pacific will allow it to become the economic leader in an increasingly strategic geopolitical area. In the name of the Digital Silk Road, Chinese companies are investing in and financing the development of Indo-Pacific information and communications technology, which consists of various forms of physical infrastructure.

Beijing has exported 5G technology to the region, and has been involved in the laying of undersea and fiber optic cables, as well as the provision of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology.

The Maldives-Sri Lanka Cable, built by HMN Technologies (formerly Huawei Marine Networks) cost $22 million and uses Hulhumalé as a landing station. HMN has, since 2020, completed 16 undersea cable projects across 27 countries in the Indo-Pacific, valued at $1.6 billion total.

Maldives-Sri Lanka Cable. Map: Submarine Cable Networks

Maldives thus is a growing principal locale for China to capture the fiber-optic communications market in the Indian Ocean region. China’s supremacy in the regional information and communications tech sector speaks to Beijing’s looming presence as overman in the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, the international community has grown wary of China’s potential exploitation, for malicious use, of the data transmitted across the infrastructure it develops. Such a concern has been raised by the United States.

China’s “smart cities” concept, which Beijing has offered to partner countries under Belt and Road, includes the deployment of thousands of CCTV cameras, developed by companies Dahua and Hikvision, both Chinese. According to the Observer Research Foundation, 861 cameras have already been erected in the Maldives.

Feeding cybersecurity and espionage concerns over China’s provision of surveillance cameras are allegations that cameras made by Dahua and used in European countries could be used to analyze skin color. Products from both Dahua and Hikvision have been deployed in China’s Xinjiang region and have been linked to human rights violations. Word of these issues sparked apprehension over China’s capacity for the devices’ nefarious use in the Maldives.

China’s buildup of technological power across the Indo-Pacific region underscores the pace at which Beijing is participating in a global techno-nationalist race for control over the emerging technology industry.

Competing with the United States and hoping to supplant Western influence, China seeks to dominate as much of the worldwide information/communications technology market as possible. Beijing’s “Made in 2025” initiative is emblematic of this desire. China is obsessed with having a hand in every region of the world, attaining dominance over physical ICT infrastructure as well as the development and sale of emerging technologies, which it sees as invaluable to acquire geopolitical influence.

To Beijing, there is no better way of doing this than to invest in Belt and Road flagship projects, simultaneously forging diplomatic ties with partner governments and surging forward in the global competition.

For small countries such as the Maldives that are dependent on international economic agreements, there is little reason to turn down China’s ambitious projects. The Maldives is just one of many countries China aims to work with. The emerging Indo-Pacific market is the locus of China’s Belt and Road interest, which has grown in intensity over recent years and will undoubtedly continue.

Chinese technology is a cornerstone of digital authoritarianism and the Maldives has surfaced as a stronghold for Beijing’s amplification as the world’s leading techno-nationalist power. Malé is ready to engage with China to diversify its economic and political agenda, even if the result is to exalt Beijing as a hegemonic leader of the Indian Ocean region.

Joshua Bowes ([email protected]) is a research associate at the Millennium Project’s South Asia Foresight Network (www.southasiaforesight.org) in Washington, DC, focusing on South Asian security challenges, political conflict and the confluence of extremism and technology.

This article was originally published by Pacific Forum. It is republished with permission.

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