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[All Politics is Global] A 'Beijing-Friendly' Maldives President Means Alarm for Indian Ocean Security

A pro-China president in the Maldives is the moment Beijing has been waiting for to consolidate its expanding strategic naval footprint in the Indian Ocean.



Mohamed Muizzu, the newly elected president of Maldives speaks during his inauguration ceremony in Male, Maldives November 17, 2023. (Adapted from ©REUTERS/Nishan Ali)

The recently sworn-in Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu's political leanings are fast beginning to reflect upon the security of the Indi-an Ocean Region (IOR). On oath as the Maldives' President since November 2023, Muizzu is fast coming to be known for his "China tilt." President Xi Jinping's special envoy, State Councilor Shen Yiqin, arrived in the Maldives for the inauguration of Mohamed Muizzu's taking over. It was an implicit announcement that a Beijing-friendly president would likely result in China stepping up its investments. This simultaneously should raise regional apprehensions on matters of security.

Predictably, President Muizzu has picked China for his second official state visit since taking office, following Turkey. Departing from a long-held convention, wherein previous Maldivian presidents made it a point to visit India on their maiden state visit, Muizzu's office confirmed that he shall be in Beijing from January 7–12. During these five days, the Muizzu administration is anticipated to promote Chinese investments in various infrastructure-related projects in the Maldives that could bear vital strategic consequences. That apart, Malé's change of political guard could impact the Indian Ocean Region's security and strategic stability equations too.

President Mohamed Muizzu of the Maldives (second from left) and President Xi Jinping of China (second from right) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 11. (©Xinhua via Kyodo)

China's Sway Over the Maldives

The impact of Muizzu's election as President has led to a seemingly increasing Chinese influence not just within the Maldives, but in the latter's approach to the Indian Ocean's security and stability. The latest illustration of this came within a month of Muizzu assuming office. In December 2023, the Maldives decided to skip the 6th meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave held in Mauritius' capital, Port Louis. Established in 2020, the conclave aims to expand the scope of maritime law and safety. It addresses issues such as countering terrorism, combating trafficking and transnational organized crime, coastal and cyber security, marine pollution, protection of critical infrastructure, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Malé's decision to skip this key regional security dialogue raised eyebrows over the country's commitment to regional security cooperation that deals with challenges in the Indian Ocean Region. Incidentally, this occurred on the same day when the Maldives' Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef was in China. He was there for the meeting of "China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation" organized by the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA).

China's Port Policy

China recognizes fully well that to boost its naval power projection capability, it will have to gain greater access to ports and berthing facilities across regions, especially closer to the mainland. This is reflected increasingly in China's covert strategy of granting huge loans to smaller coastal island nations that are in dire need of developmental funds.

The Maldivian iHavan Integrated Development Project remains a case in point. It is believed to be one of the most fundamental projects geographically in the largest uninhabited area in the Maldives. This northernmost part of the Maldives is the main sea line of communication joining Southeast Asia and China to West Asia and Europe. The iHavan project rode hugely on concessional loans/aid financing from China. In fact, the Maldives' debt to China totaled 29 percent of its gross domestic income in 2021, according to the Statista data aggregator.

With the new administration under Muizzu, it is suspected that Beijing would begin to seize the political opportunity and attempt to secure a few berthing facilities for the PLA Navy (PLAN). This move needs to be read in conjunction with the cumulative maritime activity of the PLAN and its mounting forays into the Indian Ocean — the third-largest water body in the world. China's expanding strategic naval footprint in the Indian Ocean, be it in Sri Lanka or the Maldives, by acquiring more maritime bases and berthing facilities is a core pillar of its ports policy.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka (left) shakes hands with President Xi Jinping of China on October 20 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (©Xinhua via Kyodo)

The Maldives and India

The PLAN's presence and deployment in the IOR have been on the rise for almost a decade now. Sri Lanka is fast becoming the pivot of the rising Chinese naval presence in the IOR. Beijing's controlling stake in the Hambantota port further consolidates China's permanent naval presence in South Asia. Beijing seeks to gain greater access to the strategic pathways of the Indian Ocean, an alleviated access to the Gulf oil. This would consequently reduce its dependence on the passage through the Malacca Strait — a key potential vulnerability for China in the event of a future conflict.

Further, President Muizzu's pro-China stance is also being seen in reference to his policy approach vis-à-vis India. For decades, India has been a net security provider for the Maldives. Since the thwarting of the 1988 coup attempt in the Maldives, India's steady presence has been characterized in terms of providing defense training, equipment, and assistance. Notably, around 70 percent of the Maldives' defense training requirements are fulfilled by India.


Muizzu appears to be targeting the above and wants the Indian troops to withdraw from the strategic archipelago. They are stationed in the Maldives to maintain and operate two helicopters and a Dornier 228 aircraft. These were gifted by New Delhi for humanitarian and disaster relief, surveillance operations, search, and rescue missions, as well as combating illegal maritime activities. Besides, Muizzu has announced a review of more than 100 agreements with India.

In all, China has been waiting for this politically opportune moment inside Malé, which has arrived. China shall seize this opportunity and weave its influence in the Maldives, economically, and strategically. Together, this shall cement the intransigent course of Beijing's strategy across the Global South and the Indian Ocean.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).

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