1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

India: Modi beach visit aggravates Maldives row

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
January 12, 2024

Images of the Indian prime minister promoting India's idyllic Lakshadweep islands have exacerbated tensions with the Maldives, which is turning more towards China under a new government.

A tropical beach with white sand and clear water
India's Lakshadweep Islands are located off the coast of the southern Kerala provinceImage: Michael Runkel/robertharding/picture alliance

Last week, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted several photos on his social media accounts showing him enjoying the white sands of Lakshadweep, an Indian archipelago of 36 islands off the coast of Kerala state.

The prime minister was shown meeting with locals, enjoying the pristine coastline, and going snorkeling.

"I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its [Lakshadweep] islands and the incredible warmth of its people," he tweeted, sharing several pictures that went viral among Modi's supporters.

However, Modi's visit conveyed the impression to Maldivian lawmakers that Lakshadweep is being pitched to Indian tourists as an alternative to the Maldives, located some 130 kilometers (70 miles) to the south.

After the publicity kicked up by Modi's Lakshadweep visit, three Maldivian government ministers were suspended after they made disparaging remarks against Modi, which drew outrage in India.

India's External Affairs Ministry summoned the Maldives ambassador, Ibrahim Shaheeb, to express its concerns.

"The government of Maldives is aware of derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals. These opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the government," said a statement, without naming its ministers or Prime Minister Modi.

Additionally, a large Indian online travel platform halted flight bookings to the Maldives, and social media sites called for an economic boycott of the Maldives, as the economy largely depends on tourism.

Maldives turning towards China

India and Maldives relations have hit a rough patch since Mohamed Muizzu won the Maldives' presidential election in November last year on the back of an "India Out" campaign, during which he characterized India as a threat to the Maldives sovereignty, while cozying up to China.

 Mohamed Muizzu
Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu won on the back of anti-India rhetoric Image: Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photo/picture alliance

Although both India and the Maldives have a strong interest in maintaining ties that have been built over the past six decades, the fact that a beach promotion could escalate into a diplomatic spat shows how sensitive the relationship has become.

With the tourism tensions simmering in the background, Muizzu embarked on his first state visit to Beijing this week, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday and lauding the Maldives relationship with China.

Following the talks, the two countries signed 20 "agreements," covering tourism cooperation and a "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership," Chinese state media reported.

On Tuesday, Muizzu addressed the "Invest Maldives" Forum in China's Fujian Province and spoke of his government's plans to diversify the country's popular tourism sector and "offer new experiences."

"China was our number one market pre-COVID, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position," he said, according to a statement issued by the president's office.

Muizzu also commended China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for delivering "significant infrastructure projects" to the Maldives.

China has been undertaking infrastructure projects and making significant economic investments in the Indian Ocean region as part of the BRI. Adjacent to routes used for China's energy supplies, the strategic maritime location of the Maldives will benefit Beijing.

Maldives shouldn't turn their backs on India so fast in favor of China, said Srikanth Kondapalli, China expert and dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of International Studies.

"A near neighbor is better than a faraway friend," he told DW.

Xi Jinping and Mohamed Muizzu on a red carpet
Xi Jinping and Mohamed Muizzu met in Beijing and signed a series of agreementsImage: Huang Jingwen/Xinhua/IMAGO

India's financial help to Maldives has been generous over the years, and it has been at work on some important infrastructure projects. New Delhi is keen to see that Muizzu's government does not drift more closely to Beijing.

In November 2022, India provided the Maldives $100 million (€91.17 million) to help the country face its financial challenges.

However, last month, Maldives skipped a key security dialogue held in Mauritius, raising eyebrows over the country's commitment to a regional security cooperation mechanism that deals with challenges in the Indian Ocean.

Balancing India and China

In the last two years, Indians topped tourist arrivals to the Maldives, followed by Russia and China. Official figures showed that more than 209,000 Indian tourists visited the Maldives in 2023.

"Chinese tourists outnumbered everyone before COVID. They may resume these figures, but the larger issue of being far away still troubles the Maldives," said Kondapalli.

Consequently, India's long-term strategic challenges have increased amid China making inroads on BRI investments in the region.

The Maldives is one of the key elements in India's maritime security calculus as the archipelago sits in the middle of major shipping lanes connecting east and west Asia.

Experts say it is also part of a contest for influence in the region that is seen as central to the US's strategy to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.

Gulbin Sultana, an associate fellow with the South Asia Center at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in India, said India-Maldives bilateral relations are going through a period of uncertainty under the new government.

"The Maldives has decided not to renew a 2019 agreement with India on a hydrographic survey of the island nation's waters and the Muizzu-led government has also asked New Delhi to withdraw its troops from the country, which could complicate the situation," Sultana told DW.

According to defense officials, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard maintain small contingents in the Maldives to run a maritime patrol aircraft and two helicopters.

"Both governments are quietly navigating through their differences. And at a moment when bilateral relations appear fragile, the irresponsible comments of the Maldivian ministers have sparked outrage among the people in both countries," Sultana said.

"This development has the potential to further deteriorate bilateral relations if a concerted effort is not taken by Muizzu to prevent anti-India rhetoric by the ruling party members," she added.

Rising sea levels threaten to render Maldives uninhabitable

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11