China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is too worthwhile an idea for an election to derail. Maldives president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih last month defeated overtly pro-Beijing Abdulla Yameen, raising hopes in New Delhi that India could regain lost favour with its north Indian Ocean neighbour. Given concerns in the nation about the scale of Chinese infrastructure projects and their financial cost, there is bound to be a review, just as after recent polls in Malaysia and Pakistan. But the benefits of Chinese investment are so great that there will be no ditching, only diplomatic rebalancing.
The Maldives is an important part of China’s ambitious infrastructure and trade project linking Asia with Africa and Europe. Strategically, the archipelago of islands is equally important for rivals China and India as they vie for regional influence. Yameen was quick to see potential China offered after winning the presidency in 2013 and along with Chinese tourists came hundreds of millions of dollars in investment for work including an airport extension and bridge and housing development. For critics of his hardline rule, he appeared to further mark his preference by jailing opposition politicians including former president Mohamed Nasheed, who had favoured India.
Nasheed, later freed, campaigned in support of Solih from exile in Sri Lanka with an anti-China message. He warned that the Maldives was in danger of falling into a debt trap and pointed to the experience of Sri Lanka, which had been unable to pay loans to Beijing over a port project and been forced into a 99-year lease. That was the same argument voiced by poll victors Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia and Pakistan’s Imran Khan. But their rhetoric has given way to pragmatism and that is bound to be the case with Solih; China and the opportunities it offers are too big to ignore.
The election result is not a setback for Beijing. Nations, especially smaller ones, have to play a balancing act with trade and investment, so as not to become too dependent on any one partner. Solih can put his country’s interests first through China and India being counterbalances.
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