The Ministry of Defence has disclosed that the recent defence agreement with China, signed on 4 March 2024, was initiated at the behest of the Chinese government. This revelation, made in response to a Right to Information (RTI) application by a local media outlet, sheds light on the dynamics behind the agreement, underscoring a pivotal shift in the Maldives’ geopolitical orientation under President Dr Mohamed Muizzu’s administration.

Defence Minister Ghassan Maumoon and Major General Zhang Baoqun of China formalised the agreement, which marks a significant juncture in Maldives-China relations. The pact, arising from a proposal during President Muizzu’s official visit to China, aims to provide military assistance to the Maldives. 

However, details concerning the terms of the agreement and the specific nature of the aid remain conspicuously limited, with the Ministry stating that the agreement’s duration hinges on the reception of aid and the formalisation of acceptance procedures by the Maldivian military.

The day following the agreement’s signing, President Muizzu, while on the campaign trail, clarified that the pact primarily entails the provision of non-lethal military equipment and training. This disclosure, aimed at mitigating concerns over the agreement’s potential impact on regional security, positions the pact as a measure to enhance the Maldives’ military technical capacity and, consequently, its national autonomy.

However, the agreement and the manner of its disclosure have sparked criticism from various quarters, including Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who expressed doubts about the nature of the military cooperation with China. Nasheed suggested that the agreement might be more indicative of a procurement contract for non-lethal equipment, such as rubber bullets and tear gas, rather than a substantive defence partnership. His critique pointedly addresses the government’s approach to governance, implicitly questioning the prioritisation of militarisation over diplomatic or democratic means.

The defence pact with China signifies a notable realignment in the Maldives’ foreign policy, moving away from its traditionally close ties with India. This shift, while ostensibly aimed at strengthening the Maldives’ defence capabilities and independence, has raised eyebrows both domestically and internationally, prompting a reevaluation of the strategic balance in the Indian Ocean region.