Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit Maldives, Sri Lanka in outreach

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be in the Maldives on a two-day visit from Jan 7. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be in the Maldives on a two-day visit starting on Friday (Jan 7), a trip that is closely watched by New Delhi amid an "India Out" campaign helmed by a politician deemed to be pro-China in that country.

The Indian Ocean is at the heart of a longtime jostle for influence between China and India, which considers the region to be a part of the extended neighbourhood.

After the Maldives, Mr Wang will visit Sri Lanka, another trip that will be closely scrutinised in New Delhi, as part of his tour of littoral nations in the Indian Ocean.

In the Maldives, where China is seen to have economic and military interests, Mr Wang will hold talks with his counterpart Abdulla Shahid and will pay a courtesy call on President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

"The visit... will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Maldives and China," said Maldives' Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

India has watched with alarm the increasing Chinese footprint over the years in countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka to the south and Nepal and Pakistan to the north.

While India-Maldives ties are going strong under the Solih administration, Mr Wang's visit comes at a time when former Maldives president Abdulla Yameen has gone all out in supporting the "India Out" campaign, which has been simmering for three years, mainly on social media.

Mr Yameen was released from house arrest in November after a top court overturned his conviction for money laundering and embezzlement on the grounds of insufficient evidence. He has since returned to politics and is helming the "India Out" campaign, which has propagated that India is seeking a military presence that will compromise the Maldives' sovereignty.

In a statement, the Maldives government criticised the attempt by a "small group of individuals and a few political personalities" to spread "misguided and unsubstantiated information to propagate hatred towards India, one of the closest bilateral partners" of the country.

In New Delhi, political watchers will be looking at whether Mr Wang meets Mr Yameen, whose tenure as president saw worsened ties with India but closer relations with China.

"It will be interesting to see if Yameen is invited to official celebrations, pending his ongoing trial in a second graft-cum-money laundering case ... Even more interesting to note is if the visitor meets or wants to meet Yameen," said Mr N. Sathiya Moorthy, director of the Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.

Still for the Maldives, which subsists on high-end tourism recovering from the pandemic, a key aspect of the visit will be discussions on economic ties with China and on its exposure to Chinese debt, estimated to be over US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion).

Maldives, which is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has a total public and publicly guaranteed debt of US$5.6 billion as of end-March last year, about 125 per cent of its estimated 2021 GDP, according to the World Bank. The bank has assessed that Maldives remains at high risk of overall and external debt distress.

"Naturally, the two sides will discuss economic cooperation, which will boil down to Chinese funding for Maldivian projects. Maldives in this Covid-19 era is in no position to decline aid offers from any source. The Maldives may also want further deferment or concessions for repaying pending debts," said Mr Moorthy.

South Asia expert Sukh Deo Muni noted that the main aim of the visit for Beijing was to strengthen links with a country that is important for its maritime silk route and to see if any additional projects could be done under the BRI. "There is no specific angle but to consolidate strategic link," he said.

India has been successful in resetting ties with Maldives under Mr Solih, who has underlined the importance of working with China. India has also invested in infrastructure including a US$500 million bridge connecting four islands, rivalling a US$200 million friendship bridge built by China.

"It is a competitive process (between India and China)," said Professor Muni, who noted that elections in the Maldives are due next year and that a potential Yameen win would be problematic for India.

"A nationalistic streak is gathering momentum.. (if) Yameen gets support, there is a worry," he said.

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