The Maldives on Wednesday made it clear that it would continue with its balancing act vis-a-vis India and China, iterating that Beijing would remain an important development partner of Male a fortnight after India announced investment in the archipelago’s biggest infrastructure project.
The last few weeks have seen India try to mend its frayed relations with its immediate neighbours in the face of the Chinese aggression in Ladakh but no country, not even Bangladesh, appears to be in India’s corner at present with all preferring to remain equidistant at best.
Participating by videoconference in an event organised by the Maldivian embassy in China on the Maldives’ 55th Independence Day, foreign minister Abdulla Shahid said: “China has and will continue to be an important development partner of the Maldives.”
On August 13, India had announced its decision to invest in the Greater Male Connectivity Bridge (GMCB), the largest infrastructure project in the Maldives that seeks to connect the archipelago’s capital with three neighbouring islands, including a new industrial zone, and is thrice the size of a similar bridge constructed by the Chinese.
Along with the investment of $100 million for the GMCB, India had announced a new line of credit of $400 million.
First democratically elected Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed’s tweet welcoming the decision had come as music to India’s ears: “The super low cost development assistance announced by @DrSJaishankar today is exactly what Maldives needs. Genuine help from a friend, to help us build critical infrastructure. Rather than eye-wateringly expensive commercial loans that leaves the nation mired in debt. @PMOIndia.”
This was an obvious reference to the Chinese investment boom during the Abdulla Yameen years and what is known as debt-trap diplomacy where Beijing uses its deep pockets to offer cheap loans to countries that can ill afford to pay back, leaving them indebted to China and, thereby, helping it gain a foothold across the world. Both India and China have been competing with each other to increase their influence in the immediate neighbourhood, and New Delhi had hoped to see the Maldives dial back some of the pro-China moves made during the regime of President Yameen.
But foreign minister Shahid has from the early days of this government in late 2018 maintained that the Maldives will remain engaged with China.
In November 2018, during his first visit to India after Yameen was defeated in the elections, Shahid had spelt out the Maldives’ policy clearly: “(Former) President Yameen tried to play India against China, and China against India. He thought he could become the puppet master. Our government will not play one country against another. We have a strong India First policy but we will work with all countries also.”