President of Maldives to visit China Jan 8-12, Beijing says

New Delhi (Reuters) – The president of the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, will pay a state visit to China from Jan. 8 to 12, the Chinese foreign ministry said in statement on Friday, in what would be a high-profile snub to the island nation’s huge neighbour India.

Multiple calls by Reuters to the Foreign Ministry and President’s Office in Male on Friday – the weekend in the Maldives – to confirm the president’s trip went unanswered.

Muizzu, who in November took over as president of the Indian Ocean nation made up of more than a hundred islands dotted with luxury resorts, issued an election pledge to remove a small contingent of some 75 Indian military personnel in the country and alter the Maldives’s “India first” policy.

Asked to comment on Thursday about talk of President Muizzu making a state visit to China, New Delhi said the matter was out of its hands.

“It is for them to decide where they go and how they go about their international relations,” Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said, adding that he had no update on the removal of Indian military personnel from the islands.

While both New Delhi and Beijing are vying for influence in the region, Muizzu’s government is considered to be leaning towards China.

The Maldives owes China about $1.3 billion, according to the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) data. China is the Maldives’ largest external creditor, accounting for about 20% of its total public debt.

“President Muizzu seems disinclined to continue engaging India. His actions seem directed at creating distance between Male and Delhi. He also seems keen on a close friendship with China, which should be concerning to India,” Abhijit Singh, head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi said.

“The President’s trip to Beijing, before a visit to New Delhi, is a signal – as clear as any – that India is low on priority for this regime.”

Unlike most of his predecessors who have visited India first after being elected, Muizzu chose Turkey as his first international port of call. He later met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the United Arab Emirates on the sidelines of COP28. The two countries have set-up a core group to discuss the withdrawal of Indian troops.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister Zameer on Thursday, the State Department said in a statement.

“The Secretary reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to strengthening cooperation with Maldives, a key partner in a free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region,” it said.

(Reporting by Krishn Kaushik; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Hugh Lawson)