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The Maldives last week signed a “military assistance” deal with China, shifting further away from neighboring India after ordering its troops out amid mounting tensions in a region strategic to international trade, CNN reported.

According to the Maldivian Defense Ministry, the deal was “gratis” – without any payment requirement – and would strengthen “bilateral ties.” No further detail was given on the contents of the agreement.

This comes after President Mohamed Muizzu in January told Indian troops deployed in the country to leave. Muizzu won last year’s presidential election on an anti-India, pro-China platform. After negotiations, India agreed to withdraw its troops in stages by May 10.

An estimated 77 Indian soldiers are stationed in the archipelago.

India has traditionally considered the Maldives to be within its sphere of influence, thanks partly to close relations with former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

But tensions rose after Muizzu’s election. In January, a social media post from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting the Lakshadweep Islands – an Indian territory 80 miles north of the Maldives – sparked a diplomatic row that led to an Indian tourism boycott of the Maldives.

Meanwhile, Muizzu traveled to Beijing to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid.

New Delhi expressed concern at this foreign policy shift, signaling the growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean. Two South Asian nations, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, are now in the orbit of China. Their location, halfway along east-west shipping lanes and encircling India’s southern tip, makes them strategic partners, Agence France-Presse wrote.

In a move national media described as an attempt to curb Chinese influence, the Indian Navy last week announced plans for a new base in the Lakshadweep archipelago, the Associated Press reported.

The navy, which already has a base on Lakshadweep’s Kavaritti island, said the new base should “facilitate the Indian Navy’s operational effort towards anti-piracy and anti-narcotics operations in Western Arabian Sea.” It’s set to be built on the archipelago’s southernmost island, Minicoy – closer to the Maldives.

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