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China supports Maldives’ sovereignty, ties will grow stronger: Muizzu amid uneasy ties with India

Image Source : PTI (FILE) Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu

India-Maldives tensions: Amid strained ties with India, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu has lauded his country’s flourishing strategic relations with its neighbour China, saying that the two nations fully respected each other and Beijing fully supported the sovereignty of the island country. The pro-China leader recently came from a high-profile visit from China amid a diplomatic row between the Maldives and India.

In an interview with Chinese state-run media, Muizzu asserted that China has assisted in the development of the Maldives since establishing diplomatic relations in 1972 as both countries elevated their relations into a strategic partnership during his visit to Beijing. He said China’s Belt and Road Initiative has taken bilateral relations to a new level and expressed confidence that Beijing would not interfere with the internal affairs of the Maldives.

The Maldives President expressed his belief that China-Maldives relations will continue to grow stronger in the future, adding that Chinese President Xi Jinping puts the interests of his citizens, and the Chinese economy reached new heights under his leadership. Muizzu said President Xi has assured him that the Chinese government will help the Maldives achieve its goals.

Muizzu further elaborated on his vision involving strengthening the Maldivian economy and transforming the country into one that works in harmony with other developed countries within the framework of his vision. He also vowed to bring progress in accordance with the expectations of the people.

India-Maldives relations

Muizzu won the election in the Maldives in November last year, riding on an ‘India Out’ campaign, and asked India to withdraw its nearly 80 military personnel stationed there. Earlier this month, Muizzu vowed to stop the emergency helicopter services as facilitated by India and fixed March 2024 as the deadline to stop the helicopter services and for the withdrawal of Indian troops.

His victory in the November elections developed unease between India and the Maldives, two previously friendly countries. Muizzu’s stance drew concern from eminent Maldivian politicians, as the opposition parties wrote a joint statement noting the current administration making a stark pivot towards an anti-India stance. 

India’s relations with the Maldives go back much earlier than China’s, which is considered a fairly recent player. India’s assistance and platforms have contributed significantly to public welfare, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and in combating illegal maritime activities in the island nation. The two advanced light helicopters– (ALH) and a Dornier aircraft– provided by New Delhi have been extensively used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. 

A diplomatic row between the two countries when some deputy Maldivian ministers used derogatory language against Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his visit to Lakshwadeep. This triggered a major row on social media platforms, where thousands of Indian tourists, who account for the highest in the Maldives, called for ‘Boycott Maldives’, a trend supported by celebrities. Muizzu suspended the three ministers after their social media postings

Soon after landing at Male airport from China, Muizzu, in an apparent dig at India , said that his country may be small but “doesn’t give them the license to bully us”. “This ocean does not belong to a specific country. This (Indian) Ocean also belongs to all countries situated in it… We aren’t in anyone’s backyard. We are an independent and sovereign state,” he said.

Maldives allows Chinese ship to dock

Another rift between the Maldives and India emerged when the former allowed the docking of a Chinese ship, equipped to carry research and surveys. The permission to allow the Chinese ship comes amid strains in ties between India and Maldives after its new President Mohamed Muizzu came to power and broke tradition by making Beijing his first port of call early this month. The decision also seemingly ignored India’s longstanding concerns over the military use of Chinese research ships.

The Maldivian Foreign Ministry said a diplomatic request was made by the Chinese government for the necessary clearances to make a port call, for the rotation of personnel and replenishment. The statement, however, said the Chinese Research Vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3, will “not be conducting any research while in the Maldivian waters”.

The ministry said Maldives has always been a welcoming destination for “vessels of friendly countries,” and continues to host both civilian and military vessels making port calls for peaceful purposes. “Such port calls not only enhance bilateral ties between the Maldives and its partner countries but also demonstrate the centuries-old tradition of the Maldivian people welcoming vessels from friendly countries,” it said.

The Maldives owes China $1.37 billion, or around 20% of its public debt, according to World Bank data, making Beijing its biggest bilateral creditor ahead of Saudi Arabia and India, which it owes $124 million and $123 million, respectively. Chinese firms have invested a further $1.37 billion in the Maldives since its decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2014, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

(with inputs from PTI)

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