Maldives gives port clearance to a Chinese ship. The move could inflame a dispute with India

The Maldives government said Tuesday that it had given clearance to a Chinese ship to dock in its port, a move that could further irk India with whom the tiny archipelago nation is involved in a diplomatic spat.

The Maldives foreign ministry confirmed local media reports that research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 was headed to the Maldives. It didn’t give a date of arrival.

A ministry statement said that “a diplomatic request was made by the government of China to the government of Maldives, for the necessary clearances to make a port call, for rotation of personnel and replenishment.” It said the ship won’t be conducting any research while docked in Male port.
“The Maldives has always been a welcoming destination for vessels of friendly countries, and continues to host both civilian and military vessels making port calls for peaceful purposes,” it said.

The ship arrives amid a diplomatic dispute between the Maldives and its giant neighbor India. There was no immediate comment from the Indian government.

The spat started when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted pictures on social media of himself walking and snorkeling in Lakshadweep, an Indian archipelago that looks nearly identical to islands in the Maldives. The Indian government believes that the white sand beaches of Lakshadweep have untapped potential for tourism.

However, some in the Maldives saw it as a move by Modi to lure tourists away from its famous beaches and island resorts. Three deputy ministers posted derogatory remarks on social media against Modi, which sparked calls in India for a boycott of the Maldives.

The dispute deepened when Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu visited China, India’s regional rival, and on his return, spelled out plans to rid his small nation from dependence on India for health facilities, medicines and import of staples.

The largest number of tourists who came to the Maldives last year were from India, and Muizzu said that Chinese visitors had been leading the way before the COVID-19 pandemic and that steps would be taken to double their numbers.

He also said in an indirect reference to India that his country’s smaller size didn’t give any other country the license to bully it, and added that China respects Maldives’ territorial integrity firmly.

India and China have been vying for influence on the Maldives as part of their competition to control the Indian Ocean. India, the closest neighbor to the Maldives, has considered the country to be in its sphere of influence. China, meanwhile, has enlisted Maldives as its partner in its Belt and Road initiative meant to build ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Pro-China Muizzu was elected to office in November on a platform to evict Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives. On his return from China, he proposed a meeting with Indian officials that the troops be withdrawn by mid-March.

At least 75 Indian military personnel are said to be stationed in the Maldives, and Muizzu had accused his predecessor of compromising national sovereignty by allowing Indian personnel on Maldivian islands.

The known activities of the Indian military include operating aircraft and assisting in the rescue of people stranded or faced with calamities at sea.

Sri Lanka, another island nation close to India, recently declared a year-long moratorium on research ships docking in its ports. While the official stance of the government has been that it’s for the purpose of capacity building of local experts participating in joint research missions, the move is seen as a result of concerns raised by India over a planned visit of a Chinese ship.

By Mian Saeed Ahmed Khan