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EFSAS Commentary

Elections in Maldives – Setback for Beijing’s imperialism

05-10-2018

The small, often overlooked, country of Maldives held its Presidential elections on 23 September 2018. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih overwhelmingly won the majority vote over the incumbent President Abdulla Yameen by a margin of 16.8% while almost 90% of the electorate cast their votes. The win of Solih is no small win, as the elections were marred by accusations of rigging engineered by the outgoing President Yameen, which make the victory of Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party significant through numbers as well as due to the current state of democracy in Maldives – or rather, lack of it.

His opponent, outgoing President Yameen, often accused of ruling Maldives authoritatively, and cracking down on the opposition, had in the past brought forth false criminal cases against military officers as well as his preceding President Mohamed Nasheed, in addition to declaring a ‘State of Emergency’ several times during his reign. Furthermore, accusations of bribing political opponents during the recent elections by Yameen and his Government were widespread, which render Solih’s victory even more unexpected.

According to analysts, Yameen was speculated to contest the outcome of the elections, however due to his ill-treatment of military officials in the past, the military establishment decided to refrain from meddling in the electoral process. Maldives National Defence Force Information Officer, Ibrahim Azim stated, “the military will uphold the will of the people”. This left Yameen with no option then to concede to Solih.

Mohamed Solih’s campaign promises have been instrumental in securing a victory in the elections and the people of the islands are hoping for a tangible change. Most prevalent amongst these campaign promises was Solih’s pledge to enhance and strengthen democracy in Maldives and conduct a critical review of the country’s relationship with China. Under President Yameen, Maldives entered into an imbalanced partnership with China, in which Beijing would loan money and build several large scale projects throughout the islands, but which would also leave the Maldives, most likely, in large and unpayable debt and at the mercy of China’s wants and influence. President-elect Solih has vowed to assess all projects and shown signs of having a different attitude towards China than his predecessor. Among his other promises are, the release of all those who were jailed under Yameen (Qasim Ibrahim, an opposition leader, has already returned from exile), improve relations with India, promote human rights, and the implementation of rule of law.

The biggest challenge that the President-elect will most likely face is the re-evaluation of the existing contracts with Chinese firms, signed under Yameen’s governance. At the moment, China has several ongoing, as well as completed projects, throughout the Maldives; The Maldives International Airport Expansion (worth $830 million), the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge which connects the Airport with the capital city of Male (worth $400 million), and large investments in social development projects. While China maintains that these megaprojects are simply part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and thus, solely business, and not part of its strategic geo-political objectives, many analysts and involved countries are hesitant to buy this rationale. Whatever approach Solih decides to adhere to, Beijing will not be willing to give up that easily on projects in such an important and strategic location.

Why is a small country like Maldives, scattered over such a vast amount of space with a population of not even half a million so important to China and why do these elections really matter? Maldives is situated off the south-west coast of India and lays in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In fact, there are three very significant things about the Maldives Islands: Location, Real Estate and Ideological Orientation. The string of islands sits most strategically within the Sea Lanes of Communication where 70% of the world’s trade and almost 80% of China’s energy requirements are transported through. A base in Maldives provides prime access mid-point in these trading routes and if China is successful in its intentions of strategically manoeuvring itself within this major trade route, it would greatly bolster its aspirations with regard to BRI, and more importantly, its geo-political objectives.

For nearly the last ten years, China has worked to expand not only its military on land, but more importantly, its naval forces. President Xi Jinping reiterated during the Boao Forum for Asia that, “China has no geopolitical calculations, seeks no exclusionary blocs and imposes no business deals on others”. However, China has worked diligently towards this expansion and its growing naval fleet in the Indian Ocean which has made the United States, India and others apprehensive about President Xi Jinping’s claims. Beijing sustains negotiations with its ‘all-weather’ friend, Pakistan, to create an additional military base near Gwadar where the construction of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of China’s extensive BRI, is already at an advanced stage. This has left India and the United States pondering the true purpose behind China proclaimed ‘business only’ doctrine. Washington has made its hesitations very clear to Beijing regarding its presence in the Indo-Pacific, when the Pentagon changed the name of the US Pacific Command to specifically the US Indo-Pacific Command, which demonstrates a clear shift of alliances more aligned with India. "Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability", as echoed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. 

Countries entangled in the BRI with China, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, have already been confronted with the inevitable debts, made due to the huge loans with high interest rates. All these countries are exploring ways to amend and renegotiate their contracts. With the addition of Maldives in this group, just within the past week, Beijing has started to demonstrate signs of uneasiness. New governments have come into power in all these countries and whereas previous governments initiated and negotiated becoming part of the BRI, to the dismay of their own people, these new administrations are keen to review arrangements.

The new administrations, looking for ways to rectify the damage done to their economies by China, have embarked upon a path aimed at changing the indentures. Though to be warned, Zhao Gancheng, a Shanghai Institute of Foreign Studies researcher, said: “New governments in Malaysia, Pakistan and Maldives are free to decide they no longer want Chinese investment in these projects, but they should be prepared to compensate China accordingly”. Therefore, one of the options has been to seek out foreign support that is more accommodating. For example, after Sri Lanka found itself unable to pay back its debts to China, the country had to give up its port in Hambantota by leasing it for 99 years, leading many to believe that China was colonizing the country in a modern way, which has also been claimed for Pakistan. India, disquieted by Chinese presence in the area, subsequently bought the airport in Sri Lanka next to the Hambantota Port. One of the options for Maldives would be to re-establish its longstanding ties with India and thereby assist itself in order to close the debt and release the country from the high-interest loans.

Since the recent lopsided partnership with China, made within the last year under the Yameen administration, the popular tourist destination of Maldives has gained center stage in the Indo-Pacific. With Solih’s transition into power, the new administration will have to be vigilant, and aware of the ever prevalent geopolitics this country has found itself a part of, and not let the Maldives fall prey to the gluttony of the Dragon.

Beijing’s presumptuous appetite for control in this, and other regions, and its bids to use the country for its expansionist designs, will have the US and India observing the situation keenly.