The move would further solidify Beijing’s influence in the Indian Ocean and place Chinese submarines closer to UK and US military assets in Chagos, Diego Garcia and the Seychelles, not to mention India itself.
It follows victory by China-leaning Mohamed Muizzu, who campaigned on a platform of “India out “ to beat incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in general elections held a fortnight ago
The results mark a return of a pro-China stance held by the Maldives before Solih came to power in 2018.
They are also a blow to New Delhi which had come to regard the islands as part of its sphere of influence.
The news comes as the head MI5 warned China was trying to steal nuclear technology from the UK and attempt to scupper the crucial nuclear submarine deal struck between Britain, the US and Australia.
Muizzu has already publicly pledged to expel a force of around 75 Indian soldiers ostensibly based on the islands to maintain and operate two rescue helicopters and a maritime surveillance plane donated by New Delhi.
The rescue assets have been used to save 523 lives in more than 500 medical evacuations over the past five years.
While it is unlikely that ties with India will be completely severed, Muizzu will attempt to consolidate economic ties with Beijing.
While no mention has yet been made of allowing a Chinese military footprint, senior government and intelligence sources in the islands are concerned that China will use the excuse of protecting vital energy routes to call for it.
“We feel it is only a matter of time for Beijing to play this card, and we are not sure President Muizzu will be inclined to resist it,:” said one senior source in Maldives capital Male.
It is not the first time the threat of a Chinese military base has surfaced in the Maldives.
In 2020 satellite images showed evidence of mass construction on the island of Feydhoo Finolhu, which had been leased by China until 2026 for $4m by pro-China president Abdulla Yameen four years previously,
Significantly the island has also been expanded from 38,000 sq. metres to measure 100,000 sq meters in size, in a move which echoed China’s actions on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Any Chinese military base would strengthen China’s ability to control maritime freedom of movement in the region and act as a buffer for Taiwan, placing China’s People’s Liberation Army and Navy forces with just 1,000 km of India’s mainland. The distance to Diego Garcia and Chagos is considerably shorter.
Analysts also warn that a Chinese military outpost could be used to dock nuclear submarines in the region or collect hydrological data to track sub-surface operations of India like deployment submarines.
“China’s military ambitions are not yet clear but, given Beijing’s interest in a bigger presence in the Indian Ocean, the prospect of a Chinese military base is a concerning one,’ said Shiza Abbassi, intelligence analyst for South Asia with the Sibylline strategic risk group.
“China has been seeking a way to increase its influence for quite a while.
“It has already established a heavy footprint in Pakistan and influence in Sri Lanka as part of the so-called ‘string of pearls’ effort to undermine India’s influence in South Asia.
She added: “A military base in the Maldives would chime with its broader vision. And because China’s energy supplies pass through the Maldives, it would make sense for Beijing to make the case that its military presence would simply ensure these supplies.
“President Muizzu has left the door very much open for this.”
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