Maldives signs China military pact in further shift away from India

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Maldives on Tuesday said China will provide it with “military assistance,” in the latest sign that the Indian Ocean archipelago’s pro-China shift is well under way following the election of President Mohamed Muizzu last year.

The Maldivian Defense Ministry said it signed an agreement with Beijing Monday “on China’s provision of military assistance” and that the deal would foster “stronger bilateral ties,” according to a post on social media site X.

Details of what the assistance would entail were not released but the ministry said the deal was “gratis” — or given for free.

The move is part of a push by President Muizzu since taking office in November to develop closer relations with China, following his “India Out” election campaign that promised to remove Indian troops from Maldivian soil and reassert “lost” national sovereignty.

In January, Muizzu set a deadline of March 15 for the complete withdrawal of Indian military personnel stationed in the archipelago nation, according to the president’s office. An update from his office last month said negotiations had agreed troops would leave in stages, with the first withdrawing before March 10 and the rest before May 10.

According to Reuters, there are 77 Indian soldiers and 12 medical personnel from the Indian armed forces in Maldives. India has also given Maldives two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft, which are mainly used for marine surveillance, search and rescue operations and medical evacuations, Reuters reported.

The new deal with China marks a significant shift in Maldives’ foreign policy from Muizzu’s pro-India predecessor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

The tiny South Asian nation is regarded internationally as a tourist destination popular for its white sand beaches and turquoise lagoons.

But the archipelago of nearly 1,200 low-lying coral islands, with a population of fewer than half a million people, spreads over a swathe of strategically important waters and shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.

Given their geographic proximity and strong historic and economic ties, India was for decades Maldives’ closest partner and New Delhi viewed the region as part of its traditional sphere of influence.

But Maldives has long found itself in the middle of a geopolitical tussle with both India and China vying for influence.

China has increasingly expanded its footprint in Maldives, most visibly through large-scale infrastructure projects such as the $200 million China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.

In January, Muizzu traveled to Beijing for a state visit and the two countries signed 20 agreements that included cooperation on infrastructure, trade, economy, green development, grants, and other development projects.

That includes about $127 million in aid to develop roads in the capital Male and build 30,000 social housing units, according to a news release from the president’s office.

During the trip, Muizzu hailed China as “one of the closest allies and developmental partners of Maldives.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters Tuesday that Beijing is “committed to working with the Maldives to build a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”

“Normal cooperation between China and the Maldives does not target any third party and will not be disrupted by any third party,” she said.

In his presidential address on February 5, Muizzu said Maldives must fortify its military capabilities and its defense force was about to achieve round-the-clock surveillance capabilities over the nation’s 900,000 square kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone.

The government will also not renew an agreement that enables foreign countries to measure and map the oceans and coasts of Maldives, he said.

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