Maldives may be a small country but that does not give anybody the license to “bully” the island nation, said President Mohamed Muizzu upon his return from a five-day state visit to China on Saturday.

His remarks came amid a diplomatic row between Malé and New Delhi pertaining to remarks by three deputy ministers of the island nation about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s social media posts.

The posts showed the prime minister snorkelling during his recent visit to Lakshadweep. Maldivian minister Maryam Shiuna had reacted to the picture calling Modi a “clown”. “The puppet of Israel, Mr Narendra diver with life jacket,” she had said in a social media post, which has now been deleted.

Following an uproar on social media by some Indians, Shiuna and two other ministers – Malsha Shareef and Mahzoom Majid – were suspended on January 7.

On Saturday, Muizzu, who is widely seen as sympathetic to Beijing’s interests, said that his country has a “vast exclusive economic zone of 900,000 square km”, reported PTI.

“Maldives is one of the countries with the biggest share of this ocean,” Muizzu said. “This ocean does not belong to a specific country. This [Indian] Ocean also belongs to all countries situated in it. We are not in anyone’s backyard. We are an independent and sovereign state.”

During Muizzu’s visit to China, the two countries signed 20 agreements, including one on accelerating cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative, according to a statement issued by Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu’s office.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure scheme launched in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping that envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to mainly connect China with Asia and Europe.

India has been critical of the Belt and Road Initiative as one of its components, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. New Delhi has maintained that the corridor violates India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Beijing and Malé also agreed on an action plan to build a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” for the 2024 and 2028 periods.

Further, the two countries signed agreements on strengthening digital economy cooperation and promoting investment cooperation in green development.