Maldives President Mohamed Muizzo arrived in Beijing to a ceremonial red carpet welcome by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both leaders held in-depth talks and signed 20 key agreements, including one on tourism cooperation that assumes significance in the wake of the ongoing spat between India and the Maldives.

New Delhi is keen on reining in President Muizzu who has, for all practical purposes, joined the Chinese camp. During his four-day visit to China which ended on Friday, Muizzu signed 20 MoUs including one on becoming China’s “security partner” for a four-year period from 2024. And a second significant agreement on tourism.

In diplomacy now judged by ‘firsts’, Muizzu said he was honoured to pay his first state visit to China. He also became the first foreign head of state that China has hosted this year. Xi and Muizzu announced a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership, taking bilateral relations to another level altogether.

This state visit is not likely to help ease India-Maldives tensions. China is likely to emerge as the sole gainer.

Over-reaction on the part of ultra-nationalistic and anti-Indian elements in the Maldives and jingoistic elements in India contributed to the exacerbation of the conflict. It had begun with tweets by three obscure junior ministers in the government of President Mohamed Muizzu criticising Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India as such in an unacceptable manner.

Since the conflict between India and the Maldives is taking place in the context of the Maldives’ bid to switch sides from India to China, and China is responding warmly to Maldivian overtures, it is also a Sino-Indian issue with all its security and economic ramifications.

The bad blood in Indo-Maldivian relations now is an unintended consequence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to woo Lakshadweep and Kerala with an eye on the May 2024 parliamentary elections.

PM Modi visited scenic Lakshadweep and sang hosannas on it, to woo voters in the region, and not to downgrade the Maldives as a tourist destination vis-à-vis Lakshadweep, as alleged by the Maldivian ministers.

The Prime Minister wanted to show the locals and voters in Kerala that he cares for the development of tourism and economic prosperity in the region. In fact, in all his utterances in Lakshadweep, there was no mention of the Maldives.

The other, equally important aim of PM Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep was to mainstream the population of the archipelago which is 100% Muslim. The Muslims of Lakshadweep had to be kept away from radical islamic influences emanating from abroad. The Indian security establishment has also been watchful about the possibility of terrorists/smugglers using the islands as hideouts.

The development of tourism in the islands, it is thought, will lead to an influx of Indians from other parts of the country which will prevent the islands from continuing as an exclave Muslim enclave.

Lt.Governor Praful Patel’s rough and ready methods led to protests by the locals, making national headlines. But his project continued regardless.

Presently, tourism development in Lakshadweep is part of the PM’s bid to woo the islanders and also voters in South India, a region which has so far stood against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s onslaught. As part of his “Capture the South” agenda, the PM will visit Thrissur in Kerala twice this month. On November 17, he will attend a wedding in Malayalam actor Gopi’s family at Thrissur.

When Tamil film star-politician Vijayakanth died in Chennai, PM Modi took the unusual step of sending his Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a Tamil, to attend his funeral in a bid to strike an emotional chord with the Tamils.

Given his political agenda, the PM did not mention the Maldives even once in his utterances, let alone downgrade its tourist potential. But given the anti-Indian sentiment running high in the Maldives after President Muizzu assumed office, three overzealous junior Maldivian Ministers trolled Modi for singing hosannas for Lakshadweep.

One of the Ministers dubbed PM Modi an “Israeli puppet.” Another described India as a “heap of cow dung”.

As expected, Indian ultra-nationalists trolled Maldives and Maldvians. With celebrities also pitching in, calls for boycotting the Maldives spread like wildfire. Tour operators pledged not to sell Maldive holidays.

Unsettled by these developments, the Maldivian government “suspended” the erring Ministers and asserted that it would not tolerate hurtful remarks about a friendly country.

But Delhi did not consider this adequate and called in the Maldivian envoy to protest. Unsettled, the Maldivian government called the Indian envoy to “explain” to him the Maldives’ position.

Since then, South Block has been quiet, but the troll army continues its march, with the tacit support of the ruling party.

Under the new agreements between Xi and Muizzu, China will also build a commercial harbour in Male and expand the Velana airport in Male to boost tourist arrivals. China is expected to send tourists in their lakhs to fill places vacated by the boycotting Indians.

The passenger terminal currently under construction at the Male airport will initially be able to handle seven million visitors annually, and its expansion in the second phase will give scope to accommodate 25 million.

Therefore, under the MoU, China will expand the airport, build a port and send tourists too.

Among the other important MoUs signed are the integration of the Maldivian economy with China’s flagship global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the development of the Blue Economy.

The joint communique issued at the end of Muizzu’s visit talked of a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” leading to strengthening of collaboration in international and multilateral affairs.

The two sides agreed to continue to firmly support each other in safeguarding their respective core interests. China pledged support to the Maldives in “upholding its national sovereignty, independence and national dignity and firmly opposed external interference in the internal affairs of the Maldives.”

The two sides agreed to maintain the momentum of high-level engagement, deepen political mutual trust, expand friendly interactions at all levels between governments, legislative bodies, political parties and social organisations of the two countries, and strengthen exchange of experience on governance.

The two sides also pledged to actively promote economic and trade cooperation, fully leverage the mechanism of China-Maldives Joint Committee on Economic and Trade Cooperation, enhance trade facilitation, and promote high-quality development of economic and trade cooperation.

The two sides will guide and encourage cooperation between enterprises of the two countries to promote the sound development of bilateral investment cooperation.

They agreed to explore ways to implement China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) in their efforts to deepen cooperation in law enforcement and jointly meet key challenges including those posed by traditional and non-traditional actors.

India is worried about the security implications of the growing bonhomie between Muizzu and the Chinese leadership. The Sino-Maldivian pledge to jointly develop the Blue Economy may have security implications for India.

India is deeply concerned about Chinese “research vessels” prowling in the Indian Ocean collecting sensitive data on ocean currents and the ocean floor but not sharing the data with partner countries in the IOR.

India had asked Sri Lanka and the Maldives not to entertain visits of Chinese research vessels because they could be spy ships. While Sri Lanka has imposed a one-year moratorium on such visits by ships of all countries, including China (ostensibly to allow it to work out a generally applicable protocol), the Maldives is still to respond to India’s demand.

Given the unabated alienation of Maldives and India from each other, the Maldives’ lurch towards China, and China’s seizing the opportunity in the Maldives with gusto, a solution to the present crisis may be hard to find.

The task will be made harder by ultra-nationalistic and jingoistic elements in India and anti-India elements in the Maldives. For political survival, Muizzu might give leeway to anti-Indian elements in his midst and the BJP might give anti-Maldives and anti-China elements space to queer the pitch, if that will fetch votes in the May 2024 elections.

While India and the Maldives may suffer losses from the rupture of the long-standing and exceptionally close people-to-people ties, China might emerge as the sole gainer. It will have everything to gain and nothing to lose in the bargain.