The Maldives Is Moving Toward China. Here’s What to Know.

In Brief

The Maldives Is Moving Toward China. Here’s What to Know.

Once a close Indian partner, the Maldives is now aligning more with China. Is the island nation becoming a flash point in the China-India relationship? 

The Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, has become embroiled in great-power rivalry. The country recently upgraded its ties with China after years of close cooperation with India echoing similar moves by other Pacific island states. This shift has sparked fresh concerns in India—and the United States—about China’s expanding maritime influence in the Indo-Pacific. 

How is the Maldives warming up to China? 

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The countries’ growing partnership has brought significant economic changes. Since joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2014, the Maldives has borrowed some $1.4 billion from Chinese banks, which now makes up 20 percent of its public debt. China has made several large infrastructure investments in the Maldives through the BRI, including the $200 million China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which connects the islands of Hulhulé and Hulhumalé with the capital, Malé. 

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Bilateral ties strengthened further under newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu. Muizzu made China the destination of his inaugural state visit in January 2024, where he signed twenty new agreements with Beijing that included financial and military assistance. 

The upgraded relationship also offers potential benefits to China. The Maldives sits along one of the busiest maritime trade passages in the Indian Ocean, through which nearly 80 percent of Chinese oil imports flow. Analysts say Beijing wants Malé to remain a friendly regional military presence to help safeguard its access to oil from the Persian Gulf. 

A map of the Indian Ocean showing the Maldives south of India, with important data points about the Maldives such as population (524 thousand)

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How has India responded? 

Muizzu campaigned on an “India-Out” platform, citing what he called a long-standing economic overreliance on New Delhi. (His pro-China agenda was further cemented after his party won a parliamentary majority in April 2024.) Many observers say Muizzu rose to office on the back of growing ire among the island’s Muslim-majority population over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s treatment of Indian Muslims.

Since taking office, Muizzu has requested that India replace its small contingent of military personnel stationed in the Maldives with civilian technicians. Meanwhile, India has announced plans to open a new naval base on the island of Minicoy in the Lakshadweep archipelago, an Indian island group adjacent to the Maldives.

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Tourism has also become a central point of tension. Following Muizzu’s visit to China, Modi encouraged tourists to visit Lakshadweep, and Indian tourist bookings to the Maldives dropped 33 percent in the following months. The reduction in visitors could have major economic consequences: tourism represents close to 30 percent of the Maldives’ gross domestic product (GDP), and visitors from India made up the second-largest share of the country’s tourist market in 2023.

Nonetheless, analysts say Muizzu does not want to replace India with China, but rather seeks to use the two countries’ tenuous relationship as leverage to secure the best deal. The Maldives is still part of Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” foreign policy strategy, which aims to bolster relations with India’s geographic neighbors. Under this doctrine, New Delhi loaned Malé $500 million for road and bridge projects in 2021 and announced a $100 million line of credit in 2022 to support development initiatives, including for cybersecurity and affordable housing.

Drivers cross the China-funded Sinamalé Bridge, also called the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.
Drivers cross the China-funded Sinamalé Bridge, also called the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge. Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

How does this realignment reflect the changing relationship between the Maldives, India, and other foreign powers? 

India has been the Maldives’ primary partner since the islands gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. Chinese officials began diplomatic visits in the late 1990s, and the China-Maldives relationship accelerated after the 2013 election of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. In 2017, Yameen signed a free trade agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but the treaty was stalled by his successor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who pursued the expansion of bilateral economic partnerships with India.   

The United States sees the Maldives as an important security partner and has pursued counterterrorism and trade initiatives with Malé—including a 2020 deal to boost defense cooperation—as China becomes more regionally assertive. However, Washington only established an embassy in the country in 2023, and its $36 million in economic assistance over the past five years has been overshadowed by China and India. 

Are other island countries shifting toward China? 

Experts say China is aiming to advance its economic and security goals and further isolate Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. Between 2016 and 2023, nine countries switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

A map showing the locations of Nauru, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean

Some recent examples include: 

Solomon Islands. In 2019, the Solomon Islands severed its thirty-six-year relationship with Taiwan and established diplomatic ties with China. In April 2022, China and the Solomon Islands signed a security pact that included the deployment of Chinese police on the islands, which some analysts say could lay the groundwork for a permanent Chinese naval presence. The same year, the Solomon Islands received a $66 million infrastructure loan from the Chinese government to construct 161 mobile communications towers supplied by telecommunications giant Huawei. In May 2024, Solomon Islands lawmakers elected pro-China candidate Jeremiah Manele as prime minister.

Kiribati. Kiribati resumed ties with China in 2019 after recognizing Taiwan for sixteen years and later joined the BRI in 2020. The island nation controls one of the world’s largest exclusive economic zones, an area of the Pacific Ocean extending more than one million square miles. The zone’s borders extend relatively close to Hawaii, raising U.S. concerns over China’s potential military involvement near U.S. territory. In 2024, Kiribati officials confirmed reports that Chinese police were working in the country.

Nauru. Nauru formally withdrew its recognition of Taiwan and restored its relationship with China in January 2024, nineteen years after it had previously cut ties with Beijing. Taiwanese officials alleged that China had engaged in “money diplomacy” by offering Nauru $100 million per year in grants and debt repayments to sway the island to switch its ties. Nauru officially joined the BRI in March 2024. 

Rhea Basarkar is an editorial intern at CFR. Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow made the graphics for this In Brief.

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