What the China-Maldives-India Triangle Tells Us About 21st Century Balancing
President Mohamed Muizzu of Maldives recently concluded a state visit to China during which he met President Xi Jinping, signed several deals, and saw the China-Maldives relationship upgraded to the level of “comprehensive strategic cooperation.”
While the outcomes that Muizzu flew across the Indian Ocean with following his state visit to China are fairly standard, what is unusual are two other factors.
First, the island country’s strategic location means that the United States, China, and India care deeply about its perspective and allies. The Maldives is adjacent to one of the densest trading routes in the world; over 80 percent of energy imports to the Indian subcontinent pass thorough the shipping lane to the north of the Maldives.
Second, typically, India is the country of choice for the first foreign visit of Maldivian presidents. Muizzu thus broke tradition by choosing China for his first state visit abroad and before that, he paid visits to Turkey and the UAE. December 2023 also saw the Maldives skip the critical Colombo Security Conclave – a regional security forum where India, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Bangladesh, and Seychelles convene to cooperate on security in the Indian Ocean region.
So, is Muizzu undertaking, as some have suggested, a full “pivot” to China, and if so, why? More broadly, is the Maldives a canary in the coal mine of a new era of “periodic alignment” i.e. oscillating between rival power poles, rather than non-alignment or multi-alignment? Indeed, we’ve seen another recent example in the opposite direction: Muizzu’s visit to China came soon after the election of Argentina’s new President Javier Milei, who ran a heavy anti-China campaign before his win.
Maldives Relations With India and China
Malé’s ties with New Delhi run deep. Historically, the Maldives and India have maintained deep economic and security ties and the Maldives has benefitted from India’s relief aid on multiple occasions, including the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2014 water crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Delhi in turn has prioritized cooperation with the Maldives in military and maritime security. For instance, in 2019, Muizzu’s predecessor, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, signed a hydrographic survey agreement with New Delhi, which allowed India to survey Maldivian waters.
However, Muizzu ran an “India Out” campaign during the presidential elections at the end of 2023. He focused on deprioritizing relations with India, citing perceived threats to Maldivian sovereignty. Muizzu has now given New Delhi March 15 as deadline for the removal of all Indian troops and personnel from the country. Muizzu also decided against renewing the hydrographic survey agreement, which is set to expire in 2024.
These actions of course come with economic costs. On the economic front, bilateral trade between India and the Maldives currently stands at roughly $501 million, making India Malé’s third biggest trading partner.
India is also the largest contributor to the Maldives’ tourism sector. India was the leading source of foreign tourists to the Maldives in 2023 and has been for some years. Indians accounted for 22 percent of total arrivals last year. Tourism is the main economic activity in the Maldives, contributing around 30 percent of GDP and more than 60 percent of foreign currency earnings. Calls in India for a “boycott” of the Maldives as a vacation destination could have an outsized impact on the Maldives’ economy.
Meanwhile, China-Maldives bilateral trade in the first 11 months of 2023 reached nearly $700 million, up 75 percent year on year. During Muizzu’s state visit to China, both countries signed 20 agreements to promote and boost cooperation in various sectors such as tourism, the blue economy, infrastructure, media analysis, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In a joint statement during the visit, the Maldives also stated firm commitment to the One China principle while backing China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), and the BRI. The joint statement also stated that both countries agree to implement the GSI via cooperation in law enforcement with the aim of tackling traditional and non-traditional security challenges. This could open the way for stepping up military security cooperation.
In August 2017 three Chinese frigates visited the Maldives, which raised eyebrows in New Delhi. Now Muizzu’s government has given clearance to a Chinese research vessel, the Xiang Yang Hong 3, to dock in a Maldivian port. Such port visits have caused tensions between India and Sri Lanka in the recent past, as New Delhi considers the Chinese vessels to be military intelligence assets.
No Permanent Enemies or Friends, Only Permanent Interests
It would be easy to interpret this oscillation as Malé cleverly “playing” big competing powers against each other. However, what is not understood nearly enough is that in many countries, including the Maldives, the democratic political system does not allow for long-term political calculations. Policy becomes a victim of short-termism.
Many elected leaders across the world especially in Africa, Asia, and the Latin America and Caribbean region, are grappling with rapidly expanding populations amid global economic uncertainty, and what seem like intractable development challenges exacerbated by frequent natural disasters due to climate change. Elected leaders in these countries face huge pressure to deliver tangible results before the next election cycle. In this context, opposition parties can seek electoral advantages without having to promise (much less actually deliver) tangible results by using ideology and dogma to capture publics – and swinging between competing powers is a perfect means to do so.
For the Maldives, Muizzu’s campaign and post-election moves sought to alter the Solih’s “India first” policy. Similar shifts have been seen in, for instance, Malaysia, Zambia, Kenya, and Sierra Leone in the opposite, anti-China direction at various points – all economies with a strong history and commitment to domestic elections.
However, and as we have seen often in the above-mentioned countries, it is not unthinkable that the Maldives will swing back to India in the future if the conditions necessitate its leaders to do so, and especially if agreements with China do not deliver much in economic terms for Maldivian citizens. After all, in politics and economics “there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends, only permanent interests.”
While Muizzu has no doubt so far prioritized relations with China, it would be premature to think it’s game over for India. Recall that Solih’s “India first” approach was responding to perceived “pro-China” foreign policy adjustments from the previous administration of President Abdulla Yameen.
The lesson for large economies such as China, India, the United States, and the European Union is to not be too confident in these ostensible “pivots,” while bracing for change with existing priority countries, especially where there are regular elections. In countries like the Maldives, it is challenging to strike the right balance between stable relations with a powerful neighbor – such as India – and following an autonomous path.
That said, should the Maldives lean back to India, New Delhi will likely welcome Malé back. Similarly, if Argentina decides to reembrace China, BRICS+, and all its promises, it will most likely be welcomed back with open arms. Why? Argentina and the Maldives can boast of being especially strategically relevant. While this privilege used to be the reserve of just a few countries, in the era of intense perceived great power competition, even the smallest, least visibly strategic countries may matter more than ever – and may well be able to swing between poles.
For citizens of the countries involved, such as the Maldives, however, the issue remains whether this kind of oscillating, periodic adjustment strategy – incentivized further by these perceptions of great power competition – actually makes sense for enabling growth and development. Does India really demand that the Maldives should minimize engage with China, and vice versa? Is it right that every dollar, rupee, or yuan borrowed or used from the largest economies of the world should be tied to improving their own strategic positioning in the recipient country or region, even temporarily?
From Sierra Leone to Malaysia, the typical effect of periodic adjustment has been to delay large yet much-needed infrastructure projects, or to deter foreign direct investment or other flows such as tourists from the targeted country. Periodic adjustment can be an own-goal.
A sturdier strategy, for the Maldives’ leaders and others, would be to have a policy of simply seeking to get the best out of all partners, learning lessons from neighbors and others in similar geographical or economic situations on how they have extracted the most for their own economies from large partners such as China, India, the United States, or Europe. Framed in this way, opposition leaders could run campaigns on the basis that their incumbents have not been savvy enough with their partnerships, rather than “one-in, one-out” campaigns.
Today, the Maldives, as a country that is often viewed through a reductive lens, is making independent foreign policy advances that not only remind regional powers of their influence but further show the growth of the multipolar era of geopolitics. Many other countries may take the same path in the coming years. But looking globally, these supposed pivots are unlikely to last – nor should they.