China is likely to mount a major effort to protect its strategic investments and ongoing projects in Maldives
Voters in Maldives have decisively ensured that their country remains firmly within the comity of democratic nations, by voting out incumbent and controversial President Abdulla Yameen. The combined opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohammad Solih has been declared winner by an impressive margin of votes. The massive voter turnout, above 90%, presaged the probability of change via the ballot box. Solih’s victory again underscores the power of the Maldivian people and their determined opposition to an autocrat who has indulged in corrupt practices, muzzling of the media and systematic suppression and jailing of judges and opposition leaders, including former President Mohamed Nasheed who was overthrown in a murky putsch and imprisoned by Yameen. Doubts about the election result have dissipated with Yameen conceding defeat. But until the president-elect takes over in November, there is no 100% guarantee that Yameen may hand over power smoothly.
The result also validates India’s strategic patience to await the election result, without being stampeded into any intervention in the domestic affairs of a friendly neighbour. The election result will reopen avenues for mending fences and bringing India-Maldives ties to an even keel. The root cause of the mistrust between India and the Maldives has been the growing Chinese footprint on the archipelago. Both India and the United States have swiftly welcomed the election result. China’s reaction came later, calling for continuity and stability. While congratulating Solih and reiterating respect for the electoral verdict, China’s Foreign Office stated that it would build on the friendship with Maldives and encourage Chinese companies to invest and continue to work there under market conditions. Pakistan’s Foreign Office has welcomed the results thrown up by the democratic process.
The geostrategic significance of the Maldives lies in its proximity to the Sea Lines of Communication in the Indian Ocean. More than 60% of trades and energy supplies traverse via this. China’s foothold in the Maldives became a sore point for India, as well as the USA. For India, China’s spreading tentacles into the neighbourhood pose a strategic threat to the nation’s security given China’s hegemonic ambitions have been evident in the South China Sea. The Maldives, under Yameen, emerged second only to Pakistan for its growing embrace of China. India’s neighbours have all played the China card, to varying degrees for balancing India.
The Chinese sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and dollops of hard cash doled out as bribes were the tools of geo-economic seduction to which Yameen and his collaborators succumbed easily. During Yameen’s tenure, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also became major players in the Maldives. Pakistan’s influence grew with its close ties with Maldivian security forces and Saudi Arabia played its usual Wahaabi/Salaafi card riding on petrodollars, to push Maldivians towards an ultra-conservative and intolerant version of Islam. Maldivians joined the ISIS in numbers that are a very high percentage of its small population of 4 lakhs.
The Maldivian Democratic Party, led by the President-elect Solih has voiced concern about China’s economic dominance, a concern also voiced by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives in 2014 had reinforced China’s influence. Maldives joined the BRI and China built the bridge linking Hulhule which has the international airport with Male, the capital. Maldives crossed a red line from India’s perspective when it started discussing setting up a Chinese observation post at Makunudhoo, the westernmost atoll close to India. Former President Mohamed Nasheed, now exiled, has been calling upon India to intervene and stop the Chinese encroachment. He accused China of attempting to grab islands to establish military bases. This argument gained traction because of China’s island grabbing and militarisation in the South China Sea. China’s mouthpiece media outlet also wrote about China intervening in case of any Indian action to overthrow Yameen.
China’s sustained effort to spread its influence and create strategic beachheads in the Indian Ocean, has led Sri Lanka into a debt trap which was “resolved” by handing over of the China-built Hambantota Port to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease. This has given China a long-term foothold very close to Indian shores. This lesson has not gone unnoticed in Maldives. The election result is a direct reflection of this concern and other mostly domestic issues. Solih has also promised to review Chinese-funded projects to avoid being sucked into a Chinese debt trap leading to unintended consequences.
This election result is an opportunity for India to gain some lost ground. There should, however, be no doubt that even a friendly Solih government will continue to balance China and India, albeit in a more nuanced manner. China is likely to mount a major effort to protect its strategic investments and ongoing projects in Maldives. Solih will certainly be wooed intensely by China. India, unable to match China in money power, has to use its other tools to ensure that Maldives does not cross strategic red lines like allowing China to build military and security facilities on any island. The election result could not have come at a more opportune time.
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