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China to provide free military assistance to Maldives; inks agreement to bolster bilateral ties

MALE (PTI): China on Monday signed a defence cooperation agreement with the Maldives to provide free military assistance to foster "stronger" bilateral ties, weeks after President Mohamed Muizzu set a deadline for the withdrawal of the first group of Indian military personnel from his island nation.

The Defence Minister of the Maldives Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon met with Major General Zhang Baoqun, Deputy Director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China, to discuss enhancing defence cooperation between the two countries.

Maumoon and Major General Baoqun "signed an agreement on China's provision of military assistance gratis to the Republic of Maldives, fostering stronger bilateral ties," the Maldivian defence ministry posted on its X handle.

The details of the defence cooperation agreement were not provided.

Meanwhile, China has also gifted 12 eco-friendly ambulances to Maldives, news portal reported on Monday.

In a ceremony held at the Ministry of Health on Sunday, Chinese Ambassador to Maldives Wang Lixin presented the letter gifting the ambulances to the Maldives, it said.

The visit of the Chinese military delegation took place days after Male allowed Xiang Yang Hong 03, a hi-tech Chinese research ship to make a port call for the "rotation of its personnel and replenishment."

On January 5, Sri Lanka, while denying entry to the same ship, said it has declared a moratorium on foreign research ships entering its waters for a year amid concerns from India over Chinese research vessels docking in its neighbourhood and collecting data from the oceans, including in the Indian Ocean Region, for military purposes, especially for submarine operations.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson has previously defended the port call by the Chinese research ship to the Maldives saying, "China's scientific research activities in relevant waters are for peaceful purposes and aimed at contributing to humanity's scientific understanding of the ocean."

The visit of the Chinese military delegation to the Maldives is taking place days after India confirmed that its first civilian team of technical experts has reached the island nation to replace the military personnel operating an advanced light helicopter in the country.

President Muizzu, widely seen as a pro-China leader, has set March 10 as the deadline for the withdrawal of the first group of Indian military personnel from his country.

"The first team of technical personnel to operate the advanced light helicopter has reached the Maldives. It will replace the existing personnel who were operating this platform," Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said in New Delhi at his weekly media briefing on February 29.

Following meetings of the high-level core group that was set up to address the issue of withdrawal of the Indian military personnel, the Maldivian foreign ministry had said India will replace all its military personnel in two phases by May 10.

According to the Maldivian government, 88 Indian military personnel are in the country, primarily to operate two helicopters and an aircraft that have carried out hundreds of medical evacuations and humanitarian missions.

The ties between the two countries came under some strain since Muizzu came to power in November last year.

Muizzu maintained after assuming charge as the president that he would keep his election promise of evicting Indian military personnel from his country.

Muizzu defeated India-friendly incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the presidential runoff held in September last year.

The Maldives is one of India's key maritime neighbours in the Indian Ocean Region and the overall bilateral ties, including in the areas of defence and security, witnessed an upward trajectory under the previous government in Male. The current government has said that it was reviewing more than 100 bilateral agreements signed with India by the previous governments.

The Maldives' proximity to India, barely 70 nautical miles from the island of Minicoy in Lakshadweep and 300 nautical miles from the mainland's western coast, and its location at the hub of commercial sea lanes running through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) gives it significant strategic importance.


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