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Maldives presidential election 2018: implications for India and China

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih - Maldives

The 2018 presidential election of Maldives saw the defeat of incumbent President Abdulla Yameen by United Opposition Party’s Candidate Mohamed Ibrahim Solih. This article examines the geopolitical implications of the outcome of the 2018 Presidential Elections in the Maldives on India and China, arguing that the power balance between the Asian giants is likely to tilt towards India. However, this won’t happen anytime soon due to the immensity of Chinese influence in the country.

On 25 September, United Opposition Party’s candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated incumbent President Abdulla Yameen with an overwhelming margin of 16.7 per cent. A firm mandate against President Yameen in the Presidential elections of the Maldives signals an assertive will of the people to return to democracy and the rule of law. China and India have long been vying for influence in the island nation with China have taken the lead in the last four years. However, the ousting of a pro-China autocratic President and the election of moderate and democratic candidate has given India a fair advantage to improve its ties with the Maldives and a disadvantage to China’s speculated aspirations in the region.

The significance of the Maldives

Despite its small size, the Maldives is of great significance to China and India due to its geo-strategic location in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). A SAARC Member State, the Maldives is 700 kilometres away from India’s Lakshadweep archipelago where the Indian Navy has a base. It lies amidst the prime routes for international trade and communication. For India, the island nation falls within its regional sphere of influence due to its geographical proximity, making it of strategic importance on economic, political as well as security grounds. China’s geopolitical interest in the Maldives is part of its Indian Ocean Strategy represented by its Maritime Silk Road venture.

The quest for influence in the Maldives

India, which established its diplomatic mission in the Maldives four decades ago, had a harmonious relationship with the country until the politically motivated expulsion of former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2012. With Yameen’s coming to power in 2013, their relationship deteriorated considerably. China has emerged as an extensive presence in the Maldivian infrastructure, trade, and energy sectors since 2012 when it established its embassy in the country. In 2016, Yameen’s government handed over some of Maldives’ northern islands to the Chinese government to build, repair and refuel stations for its naval ships. This was followed by his signing of a Free Trade Agreement with China. He also announced his decision to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative which encouraged the Chinese to invest heavily in infrastructure projects in the country. This raised international concerns about a Chinese ‘debt trap’ – a debt-for-leverage model based on providing financial support for infrastructure projects in exchange for access to the natural resources of the beneficiary nation – being practised in the IOR archipelago.

Yameen has been widely accused of undermining the country’s democratic process by jailing critics, political rivals and opposition lawmakers. In February this year, he imposed a state of emergency in the island nation defying a Supreme Court ruling, which nullified criminal proceedings on the opposition leader Mohammed Nasheed and ordered the release of a group of opposition lawmakers from jail. India publicly condemned this and urged the government to restore the credibility of the electoral and political process, pushing Yameen even closer to China. This incident dropped the ties between India and Maldives to an all-time low.

As a response to Male’s fast alignment with Beijing, New Delhi curtailed its supply of vegetables and essential commodities to the country. Male responded by stopping visa issuance for an estimated 25,000 Indian workers in the Maldives, including teachers, doctors, and hotel staff. Joint maritime patrols were cancelled, and Indian helicopters and personnel stationed on the island were asked to leave following the expiry of an agreement between the two countries. Chinese media dubbed the incident as an attempt by Male to ‘shed excessive Indian influence’.

New Delhi perceives China’s increasing presence in the Maldives’ a part of its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy to establish a network of economic and military ties in the region to contain India. Moreover, Maldives’ allegiance to China has direct security implications for India due to China’s indifference towards domestic matters in the Maldives. Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in the island nation, and New Delhi cannot urge it to address internal security matters with its diminishing influence in the region.

Geopolitical implications for India and China

With that said, the unexpected ousting of Yameen is a potential diplomatic win for India. The election of Solih, a moderate and democratic leader, might hinder Chinese influence in the Maldives and eventually tilt the power balance between the Asian giants towards India.

However, one must not overstate the advantage for India. It is most likely that Male will not choose to distance itself from China completely due to Beijing’s economic capacity, which is much more than that of New Delhi, to support infrastructure development in the archipelago. Chinese presence will still be felt with 70 per cent of Maldives’ external debt to the country. Nonetheless, Solih is likely to amend the excessive allegiance to China initiated by Yameen and be more accommodative of India’s security and economic interests. There are several indicators of this.

Within hours of the election results, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Solih and Solih publicly announced that India is Maldives’ ‘closest ally’. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs also issued a statement, saying, “This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law.” Former President Nasheed, an ally of the opposition who will act as an essential guiding figure for the new government, has reportedly called for an audit of all the infrastructure projects contracted out of China to possibly renegotiate deals over concerns of insolvency.

This is a striking victory and presents an opportunity for New Delhi to revive its ties with the Maldives on every front. How the governments of the three countries play their cards in the next few weeks will be interesting to watch.

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