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India- Maldives- China: Strategic Relations – By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

C3S Paper No. 0003/2015


Maldives has recently endorsed China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) project.  The island nation is set to formally support the MSR, which envisions development of a sea route from China’s Fujian province to the Mediterranean Sea via South Asia and East Africa.  Talks would also be held with two Chinese companies on oil exploration, which would be open to neighbouring countries as well.


 What are the implications of Maldives’ move for India’s strategic concerns? How is India countering China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean? What is the way forward for safeguarding India’s interests in the Indian Ocean Region?


Red Knights enter India’s Chessboard

The backing given by Maldives for the MSR reflects the growing influence of Beijing in the small yet strategically vital Indian Ocean state. There are parallel developments underway signaling growing cooperation which are a cause of concern for India. China has signed a deal to modernize the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Maldives. An agreement has also been signed for the Male-Hulhule bridge which will connect Male with the city’s international airport. In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in Male that he hoped that the bridge would be named “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.” Maldives also wants to emulate the Chinese model of free trade areas.


 Looming Chinese influence in the Maldives, be it any form, has several implications for India.  Increasing economic interdependence can lead to trade competition between the rising powers in Male. If the level of economic activity increases exponentially, China may usurp India’s advantage of being Maldives’ third largest trading partner.  While this may take decades to materialize, complacency on India’s part is not an option. One point to be noted is that Maldives would aspire to be an international trade hub on par with Singapore. By endorsing MSR, Maldives seeks to promote itself as a vital trade cum transit port. China is encouraging this ambition by mapping the MSR through the Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project, or iHavan which lies in the northernmost atoll of the Maldives. The design of the MSR project seeks to capitalize on the location of the atoll, which lies on the seven degree channel through which the main East-West shipping routes connect China to the Middle East and Europe.[1] Although China has invited India to be a part of the MSR project, it is clear that Beijing will take the lead in the grand design of flourishing commerce. Besides, there are already signs that China is gaining points while vying with Delhi on the economic cooperation front. One stark example is Male’s termination of the contract with India’s GMR for upgrading INIA , in favour of China in 2012.

 Oil diplomacy is another strategic area of confrontation. While India has offered assistance to develop Maldives’ oil resources, talks are also on between Male’s ministers and Beijing on oil exploration. However a positive implication is seen in the announcement that opportunity will be given to other players. India can take advantage of China’s maritime infrastructure prowess and Maldives’ commitment to reap rich dividends in the energy sector.


Although the observed Chinese footprints are in the economic realm, these developments leave a shadow in the strategic hemisphere as well. A strong economic and infrastructure linkage provides a foundation for a probable increase in defense cooperation. By nurturing an intractable economic alliance with Maldives, China can have the right cards to play a defense-base deal when it reaches great power status. Defense collaboration is already underway, since the two countries signed a military aid agreement in 2012. Beijing is also reportedly wooing Male to pre-empt a US move to set up a new military base in the Maldives’ southernmost island of Gan[2].  It is natural for India to feel at unease over such progress. China’s strengthening of ties with the Maldives may be part of its larger plans of dominating strategically-important sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, according to an assessment of the Indian intelligence agencies 2.


The importance of the Indian Ocean for Delhi cannot be understated. 63 per cent of India’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Hormuz. India conducts nearly 40 per cent of its trade with littoral nations along the Indian Ocean rim. Some scholars note that the Indian Ocean‘s importance lies only as an important transit route. However Former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao has reiterated that, “India and the Indian Ocean are inseparable. In the midst of the third largest ocean in the world, India’s location is in many ways her destiny. That is not just a statement regarding a fact of geography but of deeper civilizational, historical, cultural, economic and political linkages that have been forged between India and the Ocean that bears its name.” [3] In addition, between 2011 and 2035, global consumption of oil is expected to rise by around 28 per cent and natural gas by around 47 per cent. Most of this growth will come from Indian and Chinese imports from the Middle East. 90 per cent of India’s energy imports will come from the Arabian Sea via the Persian Gulf in the next few decades. Similarly, China is already importing 85 per cent of its oil and natural gas resources through the Indian Ocean. Higher energy demand and supply, even exploration, may allow China to acquire maritime economy dominance in the Indian Ocean. Consequently, Delhi cannot welcome deep Chinese inroads in India’s backyard.


  The presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean is also a cause for concern. If ties with Maldives spiral further, China may dock its naval assets at the island state, similar to the PLA (N)’s trysts with Colombo.  This can pose a threat to India’s regional security. However India is not remaining a silent spectator. It has been taking several initiatives to strengthen the bond with Male and other Indian Ocean littorals.


Playing India’s Pawns Forward  

 In 2012 India offered to help the Maldives government in its surveillance of its Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends for 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores. [4] This will allow Maldives to safeguard its economic and strategic maritime assets. A secure Maldives is in India’s best interests. Unconfirmed reports of Maldives seeking security assurance from Beijing in 2006 spurred Delhi into action. India wanted to rest its fears over speculation that Maldives was considering leasing an island to Beijing for a naval base.[5] In response, India signaled that it would continue providing the island’s security. Delhi offered Male a state-of-the-art 260-ton fast-attack craft to aid in guarding coastal waters, in addition to providing other defense equipment and setting up of radar systems on all 26 Maldivian atolls.


The Maldives is not a standalone strategy in India’s foreign policy playbook. India has initiated trilateral defense cooperation with Sri Lanka and Maldives for an effective strategy to balance Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. Delhi has also engaged in defense cooperation with other Indian Ocean littorals namely Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar. Interestingly India has moved away joint exercises with extra regional powers away from the Indian Ocean to avoid a ‘security dilemma’ with China. India’s restrained approach will thus not create greater insecurity for decision makers in Beijing. It prevents a scenario which would otherwise propel them to respond with their own security measures and cause a vicious cycle of military buildup.


 This does not mean that India is ignoring its military ambitions in the Indian Ocean. The absence of a coherently stated grand strategy does not necessarily imply that India will not maintain a strong presence while working for a harmonious Indian Ocean region. The new Indian government is putting its head together with its naval establishment to come up with a coordinated strategy for the Indian Ocean, including ‘capacity building’ of other countries in the Indian Ocean.[6] Capacity building implies a commendable strategy whereby India can help make its allies self-reliant in the defense realm.  This plan can be implemented in the economic dimension as well to garner favourable results.


Checkmate or Draw?

 India can assist Maldives and other littoral states in their quest for economic growth- While China aids them in infrastructure enhancement, India can offer to train their human resources and transfer technology. This will ensure that Maldives and other Indian Ocean nations will progress while maintaining good relations with both China and India. It implies that India should not compete but rather complement the Chinese MSR project. Competition will only lead to the small states fearing Chinese or Indian military hegemony and economic monopoly. It would signal them to adopt a cautious approach when interacting with the big powers. While the Sino strategy focuses on infrastructure, the Indian solution can be to combine capacity building in the defense and economic sectors. The Maritime Silk Route cannot exist without an ‘Indian’ Ocean and vice versa.  A gentlemen’s duel can be played with both India and China extending their expertise in the relevant domains. It will achieve a balance of power and allow room to create a region of prosperity and progress.


 This goal will remain utopian unless India accepts China’s offer to join the MSR. India must recollect that Maldives has publicly announced its foreign policy shift towards the “East.” President Abdulla Yameen announced in November 2014 that compared to “Western colonial powers,” economic cooperation with China does not challenge Maldives’ Islamic identity. India as a secular nation has an advantage while maintaining favourable relations with Maldives. Besides business strategies, a realpolitik approach is required: India must continue to maintain a strong military presence in the Indian Ocean to safeguard its assets and status.  Politically, India must strive to lead and bring vigor into the various Indian Ocean organizations. Presently the lack of interdependence among regions of the Indian Ocean underlies why attempts to create Indian Ocean organizations have not been successful.[7] Efforts against the common threats of piracy, terrorism and smuggling can also form a building block for increased cooperation.  Thus it is observed that India cannot ignore any facet while dealing with Maldives and other Indian Ocean states. A comprehensive diplomatic, defense and economic troika of foreign policy in tandem with China’s MSR will ensure that India’s future grand strategy will sail smoothly In the Indian Ocean.


[1] Chang Yong, Huang Haimin (2014) “Interview: China-Maldives relations to grow in leaps through trade, investment, says president” Xinhuanet. Aug 15. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/15/c_133559638.htm

[2] (2012) “GMR-Maldives spat: China behind scrapped GMR deal to extend footprint in Maldives?” The Economic Times. Dec 15.  Retrieved from http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/17622309.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

[3] Nirupama Rao, (2010) “India as a Consensual Stakeholder in the Indian Ocean.” Speech to the National Maritime Foundation, Nov 19 .

[4] Harsh V. Pant (2012). “India Defends its Backyard in the Indian Ocean”. Sep 25. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390444813104578017952134328248

[5] Cody M. Poplin. (2013). “India Maldives Bilateral Brief”. Indian Developmen Cooperation Research. May 16. Retrieved from http://idcr.cprindia.org/blog/india-maldives-bilateral-brief

[6] Ritika Katyal. (2014). “Why India’s ‘Blue Water’ Ambitions Matter”. Aug 4. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/08/04/why-indias-blue-water-ambitions-matter/

[7] David Brewster, 2014: India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership.  Routledge. (eBook). Retrieved from https://books.google.co.in/books?id=dkYsAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false


 [Asma Masood is Research Associate at Chennai Centre for China Studies. She has worked as an Independent Researcher on International Relations in the Asia Pacific, during which time she published several articles on ethnic, economic and strategic issues. She has also interned at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Her areas of interest are China, South Asia and Dynamics of Foreign Policy. Email id : asma.masood11@gmail.com. The views expressed by the author are her own and not necessarily endorsed by C3S]

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