MALE: The Maldives has signed a “military assistance” deal with China after ordering Indian troops deployed in the small but strategically-placed archipelago to leave, officials said on Tuesday.

The Maldivian defence ministry said they signed an “agreement on China’s provision of military assistance” with Beijing, saying the agreement was “gratis”, or without payment or charge, but giving no further details.

The defence ministry said the deal was to foster “stronger bilateral ties”, in a post on social media platform X. India is suspicious of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in the Maldives, a chain of 1,192 tiny coral islands stretching around 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the equator, as well as in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Both South Asian island nations are strategically placed halfway along key east-west international shipping routes. Relations between Male and New Delhi have chilled since Muizzu won elections in September.

New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean archipelago to be within its sphere of influence, but the Maldives has shifted into the orbit of China — its largest external creditor.

Muizzu, who visited Beijing in January where he signed a raft of infrastructure, energy, marine and agricultural deals, has previously denied seeking to redraw the regional balance by bringing in Chinese forces to replace Indian troops. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters on Tuesday that Beijing was doing “its utmost to jointly build a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” with the archipelago.

“Normal cooperation between China and the Maldives does not target any third party and does not undergo any interference by third parties,” she added.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2024

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