New Delhi: The strategic competition between India and China is becoming intense by the day in Maldives as the island nation heads for presidential elections in 2023, with both attempting to keep Malé under their fold. Malé is increasingly facing political heat as both the leading political parties there continue to tilt heavily towards New Delhi and Beijing, thereby forming rival camps.
The current Ibu Solih administration had been a staunch supporter of India ever since his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) came to power in 2018, overthrowing the former Abdullah Yameen government, which had come under the Chinese influence favouring Beijing over New Delhi.
As India wants Maldives to play a crucial role within the Indo-Pacific strategic framework with the Indian Ocean Region under New Delhi’s ‘Neighbourhood Policy’ and ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision, the island nation has also come under prominence under China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy owing to its strategic location, thereby intensifying the competition between the two, diplomatic sources told ABP Live.
India, the sources said, is providing “unprecedented support” to the Solih government that has consistently vouched for and implemented the ‘India First’ policy even as New Delhi has carried out several infrastructure projects there to curb China’s growing footprints there.
Beijing is believed to have become once again active there with the support from the opposition parties, especially the leading coalition comprising the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC) led by former president Abdullah Yameen, who is facing massive corruption and graft charges there.
According to the sources, China is now scouting for a naval base there and also actively pushing for a slew of infrastructure projects there under President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative. It is also slowly capturing the Maldivian market by flooding the country with Chinese goods.
The ongoing construction of the ‘China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’ is in full swing with all impediments being addressed at a war-footing under the tripartite pact that was signed between China and Maldives for establishing a coordinating mechanism under the BRI. The pact seeks to push forward all stalled Chinese projects there by removing all regulatory hurdles.
The China-funded Hulhumalé Hospital’s ophthalmology centre is expected to reopen there soon, with Chinese doctors and nurses returning to the Maldives, Chinese Ambassador to the Maldives Wang Lixin said last week.
Maldives was also invited by China for the ‘China-Indian Ocean Region Forum’ that was held at Kunming on November 21. Malé did confirm later that it did not attend the conference in official capacity.
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Countering ‘India Out’ Campaign
Meanwhile, India has been rattled by the ‘Indian Out’ campaign there even as the Narendra Modi government has continued to maintain a measured response in this matter and focussing only on development aspects there, said another source.
In the past couple of years, the current Maldivian government also has fiercely defended New Delhi as the ‘India Out’ campaign gained momentum there. Maldives has also become crucial under the trilateral maritime security cooperation with India and Sri Lanka.
President Solih last visited India in August this year as he gears up for a tough fight next year. Solih was the first head of state to meet the President Droupadi Murmu soon after she was elected to the top post.
During the visit, Solih was not only assured of India’s support politically but also militarily, the sources added. India has provided a range of military equipment to Maldives from reconnaissance aircraft to military choppers, utility vehicles and patrol vessels for the Maldives National Defence Force.
India, the sources said, is also concerned about the growing threat of terrorism there with Maldives becoming a hub for Pakistan-based terror outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).
India is also developing the Greater Malé Connectivity Project (GMCP) there – the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the Maldives and one of India’s largest projects in the neighbourhood.
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Political Chaos In Maldives
Of late, Maldives has descended into a political chaos of sorts with the growing infighting within the leading MDP over their leader and speaker of Parliament Mohammed Nasheed, who has already hinted that he might also run for the post of President as his rivalry with President Solih reaches its peak.
Opposition parties under Yameen, meanwhile, are fanning anti-India protests unabated. He has emerged as the only opposition leader who can stand up to fight President Solih. But it also depends on what the court there ultimately decides.
Recently, addressing a gathering, Yameen said he had “no personal grudge” against India, and would consider it to be a friendly country if he came back to power. But, he said, he would do so only if India “respects the country’s independence and sovereignty”.