By P.K.Blachandran

Colombo, January 11: Alienated from India, the Mohamed Muizzu government of the Maldives has entered into a “four-year Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership” with China.

A MoU on this was among 20 inked by the two countries in Beijing on Wednesday, in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the visiting Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu.

The two countries also agreed to accelerate the formulation of plans to integrate the Maldivian economy with China’s flagship global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The 20 MoUs cover a variety of fields of far-reaching importance, including projects close to President Muizzu’s heart, including  extension of the Velana International Airport (VIA), development of Malé’s Commercial Port at Thilafalhu and a major social housing project.

However, there is no mention of the implementation of the Sino-Maldivian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed by the pro-Chinese Abdulla Yameen government but not implemented by the successor pro-Indian government of Ibrahim Solih. Perhaps an FTA with giant China is still a political hot potato.

Writing in the website Maldives Republic, Ibrahim H. Shihab said that the international passenger terminal currently under construction at VIA will initially be able to handle seven million visitors annually. Expansion of this will give scope to accommodate 25 million. The VIA will eventually be able to cater to 4,000 passengers per hour.

The domestic terminal, which currently serves 300 passengers per hour, will also be developed to be able to handle 2,000 visitors per hour.

Additional improvements in the VIA will include; a designated terminal for budget airlines with the capacity to serve 1,000 passengers per hour; a designated terminal for private jets; a seaplane terminal at Furanafushi Island; the establishment of a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility; increased capacity of the cargo terminal to 3,000 metric tonnes; and an increase in parking capacity able of accommodating up to 70 aircraft at a time, Shihab said.

On the BRI, he said that the Maldives became part of it during the Yameen administration. The Sinamalé bridge project was the largest infrastructure development project to be completed in the Maldives under the BRI. Muizzu played a leading role in it as the then Minister of Housing and Infrastructure. China met 50% of the cost of US$200 million.  

MOUs signed

The MOUs signed on Wednesday were on the following subjects: Disaster Risk Reduction; Blue Economy; Investment in the Digital Economy; Investment in Green Development; Cooperation between China Media Group and Public Service Media of the Republic of Maldives; Formulation of the Cooperation Plan on the Belt and Road Initiative; Digital Economy; Human Resource Development; Economic Development Policy; Animal and Plant Quarantine; Agriculture; China-Maldives Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership (2024-2028).

There was an MoU on Grant assistance from China; Cooperation on Green and Low-Carbon Development; the Social Housing Project on Fushidhiggaru Falhu; Expansion of Velana International Airport; Fisheries Products Processing Factories and Re-development of Male’ and Villimale’ Roads Projects; Marine Cooperation Toward Blue Partnership; Tourism Cooperation and News Cooperation between the Public Service Media (PSM) of the Maldives and Xinhua News Agency of China.

The Maldivian President’s Office described the signing of the agreements as “a significant step” in bilateral relations. Muizzu expressed gratitude for China’s significant role in the Maldives’ economic success, and for China’s generous assistance in social housing, higher education, infrastructure development and the expansion of tourism and air connectivity.

President Jinping expressed confidence that the visit would mark the beginning of a new chapter in bilateral relations between China and the Maldives.

Roots of Indo-Maldivian Rift

Meanwhile, the rift between the Maldives and India on the issue of the insulting remarks made by three Junior Maldivian Ministers against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is widening.

One of the three ministers, Mariyam Shiuna, had dubbed Modi as “Israel’s puppet” and another dubbed India a “cow dung” country because Modi promoted the Lakshadweep islands as a global and Indian tourist destination. The Maldivian Ministers, who were brought up on an anti-Indian diet, interpreted Modi’s advocacy of the Lakshadweep as a bid to downgrade the Maldives as tourist destination, though Modi had not even mentioned the Maldives.

The Muizzu government “suspended” the three Ministers to placate India. But while the government of India was quiet, the Indian tourism trade, Bollywood celebrities and social-media “nationalists” called for the boycott of Maldives and the promotion of the Lakshadweep and the Andaman Islands instead in a chorus.

The boycott call is rooted in two things: domestic and geopolitical. The call has more to do with election-eve politics in India, and India’s geopolitical rivalry with China, than with the Maldives or its erring Ministers.

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is preparing the ground to face the May 2024 parliamentary elections in its bid for a third consecutive term in the seat of power at New Delhi. Among other tactics, it is whipping up nationalistic sentiments to keep up its ultra-nationalistic image.

The campaign against the Maldives, which is a 100% Muslim country, fits in with the BJP’s anti-Muslim political agenda.

The BJP’s bid to capture South India is another factor.  Kerala and the Lakshadweep have been out of its grasp. The BJP hopes to gain ground in the Kerala-Lakshadweep region by promoting Lakshadweep as a global tourist destination.

The BJP has also been trying to end the cultural and political isolation of the 100% Muslim Lakshadweep islands from mainland India which is majority Hindu. The BJP hopes that an increasing flow of tourists will dilute the Islamic character of the Maldives and its sense of separateness.  

There is a fear in New Delhi that the isolated Muslim majority Lakshadweep will be easy prey to radical Islamists from other countries. For international smugglers and terrorists using the sea, the isolated islands in the Lakshadweep archipelago could be convenient hideouts. Alarms have been sounded against such  possibilities in the recent past.

One way of stemming this possibility is to end the isolation of the islands by making Lakshadweep a tourist destination for Indians and others.

Modi’s highly publicised visit to the Lakshadweep, his singing its praise and fostering its development, have to be seen in the context of the factors delineated above.

But Modi’s foray into Lakshadweep led to a totally unintended development when the Maldivian Ministers misunderstood his foray as a bid to divert tourists from the Maldives and tweeted disrespectfully about Modi. This, in turn, created an entirely unexpected situation in India. Anti-Maldives feelings ran high.  

Given the fact that the sentiments triggered are highly nationalistic, they are being used by the ruling BJP to its electoral advantage.

In this scenario, it is highly unlikely that the Indian government will intervene to stop the “Boycott Maldives” campaign now spreading like wild fire.

The campaign is directed not so much at the Maldives as a country but at its pro-China government. India is extremely wary about China’s entry into Indian Ocean Rim politics. In the Maldives, a pro-Indian government had been replaced by a pro-Chinese government in November 2023. And the latter has been demanding that India withdraw its troops and revise agreements signed by the pro-Indian government.

On top of it all, Muizzu, avoiding New Delhi, had flown Beijing to sign 20 agreements including one to make the Maldives a “strategic partner” of China.

The issue on hand is unlikely to be solved any time soon, unless Muizzu loosens his ties with China somewhat or assuages India’s feelings by dropping extremist demands such as the review of 100 agreements and sacking (not suspending) the errant Ministers.       



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