CNN  — 

In the heart of the Indian Ocean, a 2.1-kilometer (1.3-mile) bridge snakes out of an idyllic atoll, linking the Maldives’ capital Malé with its international airport.

The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, built with $200 million largely funded by Beijing, is among a growing list of Chinese projects in the tropical South Asian nation popular for its white sand beaches and turquoise lagoons.

But China’s expanding footprint in the Maldives has unsettled neighboring India, which views the region as part of its traditional sphere of influence – and at risk of being pulled away from its orbit.

In a move widely seen as an attempt to counter growing Chinese influence, India announced in August a $500 million package for its own bridge. Billed “the largest civilian infrastructure project” to be built in the Maldives, the 6.7-kilometer (4.1-mile) bridge and causeway will link Malé with three nearby islands, overshadowing the Chinese bridge in length, scale and price.

Completed in 2018, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge is the flagship project of China's infrastructure boom in the Maldives.

The infrastructure race is another measure of the escalating geopolitical rivalry between India and China. In recent months, conflicts have flared along their disputed borders high in the Himalayas. Tension has also been building in the Indian Ocean, with New Delhi wary of Beijing’s inroads into its backyard.

Under its former strongman president, Abdulla Yameen, who took power in 2013, the Maldives turned away from New Delhi and grew closer to Beijing, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of Chinese funds to develop its coral islands. But Yameen’s surprise election defeat in late 2018 gave India an opportunity to mend relations with its traditional ally, which owes China between $1.5 billion and $3 billion.

“For India, there are a lot of worries in regard to China,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.

“The Maldives is just too important for us,” he added, citing its proximity to India’s western coast. “There’s nothing India can do in the Maldives to affect Chinese security, but there’s a lot the Chinese can do in the Maldives to affect Indian security.”

Shifting relations

An archipelago of nearly 1,200 low-lying coral islands and fewer than half a million people, the Maldives is the smallest Asian country by both land size and population. But it spreads over a swathe of strategically important waters and shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.

By some estimates, half of India’s external trade and 80% of its energy imports transit the sea lanes near the Maldives. China’s crude oil imports from the Middle East and Africa – which as of last year accounted for 62% of its total imports – also travel along these routes.

Given their geographic proximity and strong historic and economic ties, India was for decades the Maldives’ closest ally. It was one of the first countries to recognize Malé after it gained independence from the British in 1965. It also helped foil a coup attempt against the country’s longtime dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 1988, sending in paratroopers to rescue Gayoom and restore order. And in 2004, India dispatched three navy vessels to bring aid to the Maldives following the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Former Maldives President Abdulla Yameen (L) shakes hand with Chinese President Xi Jinping after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in December 2017.

But ties soured after Yameen – an estranged half-brother of Gayoom – came to power in 2013 in a disputed election. Domestically, Yameen was accused of eroding the Maldives’ young and fragile democracy, as he cracked down on dissent, seized control of state institutions and jailed opposition leaders. On foreign policy, the authoritarian leader steered Malé away from Delhi and towards Beijing, courting Chinese investment under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a trillion-dollar global infrastructure program announced shortly before Yameen took office.

Before late 2011, Beijing didn’t even have an embassy in Malé. But under the BRI, the Maldives rose to prominence as an “important link” in the Maritime Silk Road – an ancient sea route connecting China with Europe and Africa.

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the first visit by a Chinese head of state to the island nation, paving the way for a slew of Chinese investment projects that would break ground in the following years, including the $800 million expansion of its international airport in 2016, a public housing project of 7,000 apartments on the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé near Malé, and, of course, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.

Chinese bridge

Completed in 2018, the bridge was hailed by Yameen as a “milestone” in the countries’ bilateral relations.

“We appreciate the assistance provided by the Chinese government, which has made the dream of the Maldivian people a reality,” Yameen said at the bridge’s opening ceremony – an evening of fireworks and music he officiated with a special envoy sent by Beijing.

The idea of a cross-sea bridge between Malé and the airport island of Hulhulé was first announced as a campaign pledge by Gayoom in 2008, when he sought to extend a three-decade hold on power in the country’s first free presidential elections. The bridge would link Malé not only to the airport, but also the adjacent residential island of Hulhumalé.

Confined to an island smaller than New York’s Central Park, Malé is home to some 150,000 residents – roughly a third of the country’s population – making it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Gayoom launched Hulhumalé, a massive land reclamation project, to ease overcrowding in the capital in 1997. It is now home to 50,000 residents, and is planned to eventually accommodate 240,000 people.

For years, the only way to go between the two islands was by ferry. During peak commuter times, queuing for the 2