It started with a postcard-perfect snapshot. A photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi relaxing in a chair on a secluded white-sand beach has sparked a heated exchange of words among officials in the Maldives, a small archipelago country in the Indian Ocean.
Indians on social media reacted with a strong wave of outrage, which spread to Beijing.
Mr Modi was posing for a series of pictures to highlight the natural beauty of the coastline of the islands called Lakshadweep, an Indian territory 150 miles from the mainland and just 100 miles north of the Maldives.
Lakshadweep is like a mini Maldives, with barely a tenth of the land mass of the more famous atoll to the south. The people of Minicoy, its southernmost island, speak the same language as they do in the Maldives, and preserve some of its oldest customs.
But in Mr Modi’s seemingly harmless words of praise – morning walks on the beach were “moments of pure joy” – the Maldives heard a threat. With a population of 1.4 billion, nearly half a million of its people are vulnerable to being pushed around by India.
The post by Mariam Shiuna, Deputy Minister in the Government of Maldives, was later removed from the social media platform.
Mr Modi was actually snorkeling – a lifejacket-compatible activity. But in reality he is friendlier with the Israeli government than with the Muslim-majority islands. Other Maldivians used his social media posts to insult Indian tourists and India in general.
The response was swift, and by some accounts clearly coordinated. The flood of posts from high-profile Indians, including government officials and Bollywood stars, sparked a simultaneous outcry among the Maldivians. These posts were illustrated with travel-brochure-like images of Lakshadweep, making the competition clear. (However, many of these photos were actually shot in the Maldives.)
There was a scuffle on Monday. EaseMyTrip, an Indian travel portal, joined Indian celebrities in boycotting travel bookings to Maldives. Maldives government finally cried uncle. Ms Shiuna was suspended from office along with two other ministers who joined her in comments insulting India.
Since the 1970s, the Maldives has become one of the favorite resort destinations of the global jet set, generating $3 billion in tourism revenue in 2019. about a quarter of its national economy. When outbound Chinese tourism stopped in its tracks after the coronavirus pandemic-related lockdown took effect, India became the largest source of high-spending visitors to the Maldives.
India has always kept small Lakshadweep hidden. Until recently its islands were visited by only 10,000 tourists per year, almost all of whom were Indians. In 2021, Mr Modi’s government indicated it saw huge untapped potential there. If the coral-shaped lagoons of Lakshadweep could be sold to the world as an alternative to the Maldives, they would hit the economic lifeblood of the small country.
As the war of words with India reached a fever pitch, with some Indian celebrities vowing to restrict their luxury holidays to Indian shores, Maldives’ new President, Mohammed Muizzu, began a five-day state visit to China. His visit was planned long ago, but the rivalry with India was already on the agenda.
The Maldives, like many other countries in South Asia, has for years been teetering on the surface of a great power competition between India and China. Successive governments from 2013 to 2018 have been more pro-China, such as the government of Abdullah Yameen, or pro-India, such as the government led by Ibrahim Mohammad Solih until November. Mr Muizzu, who defeated him in the election, had campaigned on the platform of “India Out”.
Mr Muizzu had already broken tradition by skipping the India tour and making his first state visit to Turkey. So it was little surprise that he chose China for his second state visit. His government also intends to expel 80 or more Indian military personnel operating aircraft in the Maldives.
But Mr Muizzu’s country and India may want to be wary of further escalating tensions. India has major infrastructure projects going on in Maldives, which neither side wants to cancel. Suspending Ms Shiuna and her colleagues, Mr Muizzu sent a message.
India, for its part, does not want to lose its influence among its smaller neighbours. In the Himalayas, Nepal and Bhutan have recently made unusually open gestures toward China. The importance of maintaining allies in its rivalry with China is one reason India has doubled down on its close ties with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is claiming a fourth consecutive term in power this week.
Mahil Mohammad Contributed reporting from Male, Maldives.