January 18, 2024
NEW DELHI – In the azure waters of geopolitical discourse, recent ripples between India and the Maldives offer a reminder of the games nations play in their quest for regional dominance. At first glance, the public spat over beaches and snarky comments on social media might seem like a mere tempest in a teacup. However, beneath the surface lies a complex tapestry of shifting alliances, economic ties, and the looming shadow of China’s ascendant influence in South Asia. India and the Maldives, once joined in a robust and amicable relationship, find themselves at odds, exposing the fault lines of a historical camaraderie strained by contemporary geopolitics.
The election of Mohamed Muizzu, an India-baiter, was expected to queer things. Another catalyst for this diplomatic row was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep where he extolled the island’s tourism potential against a backdrop reminiscent of the Maldives. Maldivian ministers took to social media to deride India’s beaches and its leader, provoking a swift response from Indian social media warriors and a summons for the Maldives’ envoy in Delhi. This episode is not merely a manifestation of nationalist fervour in India but serves as a microcosm of the broader challenges the country faces in managing its neighbourhood amid China’s expanding footprint.
The Maldives, with a long history of cooperation with India, has increasingly embraced China’s overtures, joining initiatives like the Maritime Silk Road and signing a free-trade agreement. This has raised eyebrows in India, especially when security concerns emerged over the establishment of a joint ocean-observation station with China, coupled with calls for the withdrawal of Indian troops stationed in the archipelago. The swift suspension of the three Maldivian ministers may appear as a diplomatic victory for India, but a deeper examination reveals the complexities of the situation. The comments that led to their suspension likely resonated with a segment of the Maldivian population, mirroring a sentiment sometimes seen in neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bhutan.
As China extends its influence, smaller nations are re-evaluating their relationships, seeking economic opportunities and strategic partnerships beyond historical ties. India finds itself at a crossroads, compelled to respond thoughtfully to China’s growing role in its near-abroad. A responsible aspiring great power must ponder how to build successful partnerships with smaller neighbours. This not only serves India’s strategic interests but also contributes to fostering stability in the region. In the midst of calls to boycott the Maldives, there emerges a counter-narrative focused on preserving Lakshadweep from the perils of over-tourism.
This juxtaposition encapsulates the delicate balancing act India must perform ~ nurturing its relationships while safeguarding its own interests and the fragile ecosystems of its picturesque islands. As the geopolitical tides continue to ebb and flow, India faces the challenge of charting a course that accommodates both its historical alliances and the evolving dynamics of a region under China’s growing sway. Navigating these turbulent waters requires not only diplomatic finesse but a nuanced understanding of the aspirations and concerns of its smaller neighbours.