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India-Maldives Is About More Than China

All too often, the India-Maldives narrative boils down to whether it is pro-India or pro-China, and in that respect the current government of President Muizzu, is seen as favouring China. But as Ambassador Pankaj Saran, former deputy national security adviser told StratNews Global, this overlooks the domestic issues that dominate everything else.

He pointed out that Maldivian concerns are driven by larger domestic issues, such as the housing crisis or corruption or price rise. Maldivians, as Saran pointed out, are deeply aware of their culture, traditions and history and while the Indian connection is of considerable benefit, there is also a sense that India must keep its distance.

Does this make them pro-China? No, is Saran’s response. In fact, despite President Muizzu’s pro-China public stance, the government has moved carefully to ensure it does not get trapped by Beijing’s financial dealings. The current debt which the Maldives owes China is about $4 billion and it’s not clear how they plan to pay it back.

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China will see an opportunity to fish in troubled waters, especially when the waters lie in India’s backyard. India will have to ensure China does not damage this country’s interests or reputation and will work with the Maldivian government to ensure that does not happen. But India will have to ensure it is not seen as overlly interering in domestic issues and this could have been a perception that Muizzy cashed in on.

What’s clear, says Saran, is that over many years, Maldivians have acquired a clear perception of India’s value to them. Whether it was Indian tourists or going to India for medical reasons, India was the go to destination. That Indian tourists, from what one reads, are giving the Maldives a wid berth is acknowledged in media reports. This will impact them severely in terms of employment.

But from a government point of view, India must hold its course with the Maldives, ensure normal relations and exchanges continue, that meetings are held regularly, requests for assistance are handled quietly and efficiently. At the end of the day, Maldives has crucial strategic interests for India and those must be kept in mind.