The Maldives may be small but will not be bullied, the president said after returning from China, where he signed a raft of deals, as a row with New Delhi deepens.
New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean archipelago to be within its sphere of influence but the country has shifted to China’s orbit, the Maldives’s largest external creditor.
“We are not a country that is in the backyard of another country. We are an independent nation,” Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu told reporters on his arrival home in Male on Saturday.
“This territorial integrity policy is one that China respects”, he said in the nation’s Dhivehi language, the Mihaaru newspaper reported late on Saturday.
With Beijing and New Delhi tussling for influence, Muizzu was elected in September after pledging to cultivate “strong ties” with China and eject Indian troops.
“We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us,” Muizzu said in a final comment in English.
Muizzu has denied seeking to redraw the regional balance by bringing in Chinese forces to replace Indian troops.
Miuzzu’s trip to China this week was his first state visit since becoming president, and the two sides issued a joint communique on Thursday detailing the “broad consensus” reached by their leaders.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV said deals included “infrastructure construction, medical care and health care, improvement of people’s livelihoods, new energy sources, agriculture and marine environmental protection” agreements.
“Longstanding China-Maldives relations are built upon an exemplary model of mutual respect,” Muizzu’s office said.
– ‘Diminish reliance’ –
Tensions with New Delhi flared after three of Muizzu’s junior ministers reportedly called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “clown” and a “terrorist” in since-deleted social media posts earlier this month.
Bollywood actors and some of India’s cricket greats have responded with calls for compatriots to boycott their southern neighbour and instead book their next holidays closer to home.
Tourism accounts for nearly a third of the Maldives’ economy, with Indians making up the largest share of foreign arrivals.
Muizzu said the Maldives will also slash reliance on India for healthcare and medicine, adding more countries where citizens needing government-paid health treatment abroad can go.
Most eligible citizens currently get treatment in India, as well as small numbers in Sri Lanka and Thailand, officials said.
But Muizzu said the government would “diminish reliance on… a select group of countries”, without specifically mentioning India, and would now support treatment also in the United Arab Emirates.
Most pharmaceuticals in the Maldives are currently imported from India, and Male will now seek to import medicines from the United States and European nations, he said.
At the same time, Muizzu, the former capital’s mayor, suffered his first electoral setback as his party’s candidate lost the vote to replace him.
Adam Azim of the former ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which is seen as more pro-Indian, won the seat.