Maldives and China sign strategic military agreement

In the Indo-Pacific space, the back and forth of small powers between the Indian or Chinese giants has become usual. Latest case to date, the Maldives, close to New Delhi until recently, have moved closer, on a military level, to Beijing. This Tuesday, the Ministry of Defense announced on X – formerly Twitter – that it had signed a “military assistance” agreement with China. A statement which confirms the pro-Beijing inclination of President Mohamed Muizzu, and his desire to distance himself from New Delhi.

Elected head of state of the Maldives at the end of 2023, Mohamed Muizzu led a campaign whose slogan was “India out”, taking the opposite view from the outgoing president, Ibrahim Solih. Shortly after taking office, the new leader requested the withdrawal of Indian military troops present on his territory. A subject to which he returned this Monday, during a rally in Malé, the capital, during which he affirmed that the 89 soldiers will have left the country by May 10.

Later in the day, an “agreement on the provision of military assistance” was signed between Maldivian Defense Minister Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon and General Zhang Baoqun, deputy director of the Military Cooperation Office of the China. While the Maldives authorities clarified that this support was “free” and that it aimed to “strengthen ties” between the two countries, they gave no details on its content. According to the Ministry of Health, Beijing also offered 12 ambulances to Male on Sunday.

The Maldives had already shown signs of rapprochement with China last month. The country had authorized the “Xiang Yang Hong 3”, a Chinese ship which officially carries out oceanographic exploration but is suspected of espionage, to make a stopover in the port of its capital. Sri Lanka, which also balances between the two great Asian powers, had for its part refused to allow it to sail in its territorial waters, after India expressed reluctance.

In New Delhi, the announcement of the military agreement between Male and Beijing is received as “bad news, but not [as] a surprise,” explains Olivier Da Lage, researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS ), at Figaro. “The Maldives was a very important point for India, which used it to monitor maritime traffic, especially Chinese ships,” he continues. Highlighting the strategic location of the archipelago, it recalls China’s “string of pearls” tactic, which involves setting up naval bases along the main maritime supply route that connects China to the Middle East. This network of alliances surrounding India is “perceived as a threat of strangulation” by New Delhi, indicates Olivier Da Lage.

In the war for influence between the two Asian giants, this new agreement constitutes a defeat for New Delhi. “We feel uncertainty and an urgent need to compensate for this strategic loss,” explains the researcher. But we must not forget that India is particularly active in its partnerships such as the Quad – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an alliance with the United States, Australia, Japan – or ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – but also those with France. » In March 2023, the French and Indian armies carried out joint training, and in July, the world’s fifth economic power purchased military equipment from Paris.