China and India’s Engagement with the Maldives: “Rich Imperialism” vs “Poor Imperialism”

On 24 January this year, the Chinese Vice-Premier Li Guozhong made a brief transit halt in the Maldives. During the stopover, he met with the Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer. The Vice-Premier was on his way back after attending the Non-Aligned Summit and the third South Summit in Uganda from 19-24 January. This came after President Muizzu’s State visit to China for five days and his assurance that the Maldives will sign the Free Trade Agreement with Beijing. Far more interesting than the official visits from China, is a Chinese language document posted on the social media platform Battle Intelligence titled “China has set stage for investment in South Asia: The 60-year layout of ‘poor Imperialism’ to be resolved”, on 18 January 2024. It has two assertions, first that India’s time in the Maldives is out and China is now ready to invest in that country. And second, that this sets the stage for China to get back into South Asia, by ensuring that they have a monopoly over politics and economy. By implication, China wants all South Asian countries to pursue an India Out campaign! They have already made a start in Bangladesh.

The document states that according to Maldivian President Mohammad Muizzu who had just concluded his visit to China, China is now really looking towards South Asia and it is time for the “poor imperialism” to be resolved. The phrase used in very Chinese and probably hints at India’s efforts to assist the Maldives with military training and equipment. The document notes that on his return from China, President Muizzu issued an ultimatum that the contingent of Indian military personnel that provides support to the Maldivian Defence Force should be withdrawn within two months, i.e., by 15 March. The document carried by the social media site Battle Intelligence is based on the premise that for a long time, India, a victim of western colonialism, relied on the industrial base left by Britain to project its influence and military might in South Asia. This premise is unfortunately, a wrong one and is clearly mentioned only for its propaganda effect.

It is asserted that as President Muizzu has expelled Indian troops from the Maldives, China should reward him! The question is with what? Economic largesse? That may well be the case, but Chinese economic aid during President Yameen’s term is already adding more debt. That differences persist between the Maldives and China, is put down to geo-politics and the Maldivian requests, like the currency swap arrangement has not been agreed to by China. However, the political understanding between the leaders of both countries has been positive, on the whole. The inference of the title about China investing in South Asia has more to do with the Maldives having returned to the Chinese fold. After all, the Chinese Foreign Ministry referred to the Muizzu visit as establishing a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, with both sides having signed 20 agreements during Muizzu’s China visit.

The implications of this partnership on India according Battle Intelligence are simply put, ‘enormous’. One might well ask how? The Chinese assessment is that the withdrawal of Indian military personnel from the Maldives will add to the ‘campaign pressure’ that Prime Minister Modi allegedly faces and concludes that “the degree of support (domestically) must have been affected”. It is blithely assumed that withdrawal of military personnel from the Maldives will in some magical way, affect support for Modi domestically. The fallacious assumption that “Modi faces campaign pressure” should be merely seen as a propaganda statement by the Chinese. The other point is that India is not being expelled from the Maldives, it is a function of negotiation. Without negotiations, there can be no withdrawal, because it has to be so, by mutual agreement. That was the whole purpose of forming a core group, the second meeting of which was held in New Delhi in early February.

The article carried on Battle Intelligence site goes on to state that “…the hegemonic framework that is beginning to face dismemberment”, alluding to India’s development aid and assistance to South Asian countries. China needs to be constantly reminded that its’ neighbourhood policy is to lend money to make nations indebted to them and take control of important infrastructure assets like Hambantota, whereas India stands out as a friend in need. Thus, to argue that “China and Maldivian cooperation, followed by India’s withdrawal from the Maldives, will be emulated by other countries in South Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.” That is a covert way of saying that China will try and launch “India Out” campaigns in all countries of South Asia. From the looks of it, this has already been initiated in Bangladesh! China, incidentally, has already made deep inroads into all countries of South Asia, economically. Maldives is temporarily on the other side as far as India is concerned, but to extend the argument to the whole of South Asia is a little far-fetched.

The propaganda and disinformation campaign that underlies the article becomes evident when it argues that the “resulting geopolitical changes” could accelerate divisions within India. Further, it is contended that as India has a strong local authority the “strong propensity to secede” will only intensify. In this context, it is forecast that a group of radical populists, represented by Modi, could face serious violence in the face of a failed election. Further, social unrest could be reduced to local independence. Wishful thinking, it could be said. The world recognises the stability of Indian democracy and Indian states which like to protect their turf are also coming to terms with a strong centre which is working towards national progress. That is the reality which many quarters are afraid of and seek to create divisions. This situation is best summed up in an article by Micheal Schuman writing in the Atlantic Council. Schuman writes “…Modi, through his approach at the recent G20 summit, is offering a more inclusive vision, in which the voice of the Global South is heard and enhanced within the context of cooperation with the West and its institutions. That could well be a more appealing, and more pragmatic, strategy for other leaders in the developing world.”

The Chinese language document concludes that either way, the Maldives-China relationship presently is good for China’s geo-strategy in South Asia. The prediction is that the “Maldivian state has a strong chance of staying the course” irrespective of the outcome of the general elections in India and at the cost of India’s strategic needs.  The article warns that while on the surface, there may be agreement between India and the Maldives on withdrawal of military presence, “other means will be used to sever China’s relationship with Maldivian power, and even unscrupulous terrorist attacks to prove the ‘importance’ of India’s military presence”. It is comical that China, which has many agents of influence in South Asia, should be alleging that ‘India has produced many “agents” in South Asia’. For China, dealing with India’s possible moves could be an important step toward resolving South Asia’s “poor imperialism”.  One may well ask what then happens to China’s “rich imperialism” which has put several countries, across continents into debt?