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Worry over Xi’s trip to Maldives

New Delhi, Sept. 13: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to the Maldives tomorrow has set off alarm bells in India’s foreign policy establishment amid worries that the atoll nation may, after a brief hiatus, again be swinging strategically away from New Delhi and closer to Beijing.

Xi will be the first Chinese President to travel to the country, when he lands in Male on Sunday with First Lady Peng Liyuan and over 100 businessmen. Xi and his wife, one of China's best-known singers from the 1980s,will then visit Sri Lanka on Monday before flying to India on Wednesday for a three-day trip.

The Chinese President’s visit to the Maldives comes less than a month after its President, Abdulla Yameen, travelled to Beijing and returned with promises of free financial aid and investments in key infrastructure projects.

Yameen, after his election in November last year, had said strengthening ties with India would be his priority following a bruising two years in bilateral relations, and had sent initial signals that comforted New Delhi.

But away from the public eye, relations between India and the Maldives have once again become testy over the past few months over diplomatic and strategic decisions taken by Yameen that hint at a subtle but growing proximity to China, senior officials have said.

“We’ve been off the ball a bit on the Maldives, and things are tricky again,” an official said. “The Chinese President’s visit to the Maldives is emblematic of that simmering unease.”

Both Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, visited India. But apart from Pakistan, a long-time ally, they never visited any other South Asian nation on their trips to New Delhi.

Over the past few years, Chinese tourists in the Maldives have dramatically outstripped their Indian counterparts in sheer numbers, adding to Beijing’s influence over the tiny Indian Ocean nation’s economy. Tourism is the biggest industry in the Maldives. China has also enhanced its investments in the Maldives.

New Delhi, historically Male’s strategic anchor, was taken aback when Yameen’s cousin and long-time Maldivian dictator Abdul Gayoom in 2012 orchestrated a coup against the country’s democratically elected president, Mohammad Nasheed, despite Indian concerns.

Nasheed’s deputy in power, Mohammed Waheed formed a coalition government with support from Gayoom. In 2013, the Gayoom-backed Waheed triggered a near-breakdown of diplomatic relations with India when he cancelled a contract Bangalore infrastructure firm GMR had won to build and operate Male’s international airport.

India, worried that an adverse or unstable Maldives in its near neighbourhood could be used by terror groups and strategic rivals, pressured Male to hold free and fair polls. “We made it very clear to them, we don’t care who wins --- we just want a credible government and a stable Maldives,” another senior official involved in those negotiations in 2013 said.

Yameen emerged President in November, and chose India as the venue for his first overseas trip.

A month later, Yameen dumped a proposed defence pact --- the Status of Forces Agreement --- with the US that would have allowed the Pentagon to place military personnel on the string of islands, after India raised concerns.

Convinced about Yameen’s intentions to repair frayed ties, India lifted sanctions it had earlier put on the export of key construction materials to the Maldives. Those sanctions had stalled most major infrastructure projects in the Maldives.

But Yameen’s visit to China, Xi’s promises to him there, the Chinese President’s trip to the Maldives, and a key offer he is expected to iterate in Male have since led to a reassessment in New Delhi’s strategic policy corridors.

Xi, who in July while meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Brazil had invited India to join his brainchild strategic project --- a New Silk Route with land and maritime components --- in August asked Yameen and the Maldives to join as well.