Yanitha Meena was quoted in Channel News Asia, 9 July 2024

As major powers tussle for influence in the region, the Maldives is navigating a complex landscape, balancing economic opportunities with political pressures.

by Afifah Ariffin and Darrelle Ng

MALE: Known for pristine beaches and calm waters, the Maldives is the smallest nation in Asia, spanning just 300 sq km in landmass across 1,192 idyllic islands.

Despite its size, the archipelago’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean – along crucial shipping lines – has placed it at the centre of a geopolitical tug-of-war between China and India.

The United States has also waded in, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling the island nation an important partner in the Indo-Pacific earlier this month.

As major powers tussle for influence in the region, the Maldives is navigating a complex landscape, balancing economic opportunities with political pressures.

The nation’s proximity to major shipping routes that pass through the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean allows it to connect the sea trade from Asia to Europe and beyond.

“As a result of this particular strategic presence, Maldives can give certain major powers … the opportunity to have an influence over the shipping lanes and maritime traffic,” said Amitendu Palit, research lead at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS).


While the Maldives has had a long history of close diplomatic ties with India, China’s recent torrent of economic investments has been a boon to the nation.

“There are millennia of engagement between Maldives and India. India has played a very important role as a security provider, as a first responder,” said Yanitha Meena, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Chinese investments, including the building of a US$200 million bridge and other ambitious housing projects, have reshaped the Maldivian landscape.

These developments have been pivotal in influencing the Maldives’ political dynamics, often swaying with changing governments that lean towards either power.

“We seem to be in this pendulum. We swing from side to side. One government will be pro-Chinese, the next government is pro-India,” said former Maldivian foreign minister Dunya Maumoon.

“We fell into this power struggle, where both these countries are vying for power. Maldives fell into a trap of being involved in this competition, which is not really something (the nation) needs to be involved in.”


Relations between the Maldives and India hit rocky waters after President Mohamed Muizzu took power last year on an ‘India-out’ campaign, in contrast to the pro-Delhi policies of most of his predecessors.

He called for India to replace its military contingent in the island nation with civilian technicians, calling them a threat to the country’s sovereignty.

Muizzu also made China the destination of his first state visit in January, where he signed 20 new agreements with Beijing.

In April this year, his People’s National Congress and its allies secured a super-majority in the parliamentary elections. The president now has the backing of more than 70 legislators in the 93-member house.

The ruling party’s landslide victory was widely read as a sign of the archipelago moving closer to China.

However, some analysts said the president’s stance represents more of a recalibration than a complete shift, and that his administration is seeking a more balanced approach to avoid aligning with any single foreign power.


Despite initial strains with India, Muizzu’s recent appearance alongside Narendra Modi at the Indian Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony suggests a warming trend in relations.

“We’re being non-aligned, we do not want to take a side in the power struggles that are happening internationally. (That’s) important for us as a small country,” said former foreign minister Maumoon.

“We rely a lot on our multilateral positioning. The fact that we are part of the United Nations, and we can still, even as a tiny country, have our voice, our security and independence respected.”

Einar Tangen, a senior fellow at Chinese think tank Taihe Institute, pointed out that Muizzu has visited both China and India this year, as well as the US, indicating the nation’s desire to balance ties on all sides.

“China would like to see it (Maldives) remain neutral … And the Maldives have very wisely decided that they’re going to be non-aligned,” he said.

ISAS’ Palit said that months after Muizzu settled into his presidential role, his administration is likely beginning to realise that ‘India out’ and heavy dependence on China is not a viable long-term move for the nation.

“There are downsides to excessive proximity to China. It’s important to hedge, and stay as balanced as possible within the competing strategic interests in the region,” he said.

He added that while a potential free trade agreement between the Maldives and China could greatly boost the island nation’s tourism, it could remove a large amount of custom duties, which is another source of major income.

“Tourism is not an entirely sustainable proposition. It’s important for the Maldives to ensure that heavy dependence on tourism does not divert away (other income),” he told CNA’s East Asia Tonight programme.

“I would be inclined to the view that the Maldives is beginning to take note of the fact that a more balanced approach is statistically, strategically and economically feasible, and it’s perhaps going to stay committed to that.”

As the Maldives charts its course, its role in international diplomacy continues evolving, shaped by its commitment to multilateral engagement and safeguarding its independence.

This article was first published in Channel News Asia, 9 July 2024

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