- A pronounced shift towards China introduces the risk of falling into a debt trap and potentially straining the Maldives’ enduring amicable relations with India and numerous Western countries.
- The recent election and the victory of Mohamed Muizzu, who advocates for stronger ties with China, are emblematic of the Maldives’ evolving foreign relations.
- While historical bonds with India are strong, the appeal of China’s investments and non-interference approach presents a challenging choice for Maldives.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih faced a significant defeat in a recent Maldivian presidential elections. This election became more than just a choice for the nation’s next leader; it evolved into a referendum on the ongoing tussle between India and China over influence in the Maldives.
The victor of this contest was Mohamed Muizzu, the current mayor of Malé City, who has been actively advocating for stronger ties with China. He secured a resounding victory, leading Solih by a significant margin, according to the election commission’s official website. Following his loss, President Solih took to social media to extend his congratulations to Mr. Muizzu and express his gratitude to the Maldivian citizens for setting a shining example of democracy. Remarkably, voter turnout exceeded 85 percent.
After declaring his victory, Mr. Muizzu addressed his supporters, stating, “The people have unmistakably voiced their desire for prosperity and the preservation of our nation’s sovereignty.” At 45, the president-elect holds a PhD in civil engineering from the United Kingdom and had a career in the private sector as an engineer before entering the political arena. He previously served as the minister of housing and infrastructure before assuming the position of the capital city’s mayor.
The ongoing campaign season has brought attention to a range of critical issues, including a housing crisis in the densely populated capital city due to limited available land and the country’s dwindling dollar reserves. This has prompted political parties to present various competing proposals for “de-dollarization” in trade.
However, none of these concerns weigh as heavily as the significant influence of the two prominent Asian nations on the future of the Maldives. This nation, home to around half a million people, is positioned 450 miles south of India. The Maldives, renowned as a tourist hotspot and also highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, holds particular importance due to its strategic location along vital shipping routes in the Indian Ocean.
What went wrong for Solih?
The internal discord within the Solih administration, particularly the profound schism with Speaker Nasheed, has emerged as a pivotal and enduring issue in the political landscape. Speaker Nasheed’s decision to part ways with the ruling government and establish the Democratic Party constitutes a momentous political development.
This move reverberates beyond the surface-level disagreement; it symbolizes a significant realignment in the country’s political ecosystem. Nasheed’s departure has not only exposed the underlying rifts and challenges within the ruling coalition but also has the potential to reshape the entire political spectrum.
Nasheed’s new Democratic Party not only represents a break from his previous affiliation but also acts as a rallying point for those who share his vision. The departure of a prominent figure like Nasheed from the Solih administration creates an intriguing dynamic, where political loyalties and strategies are in flux. It remains to be seen how this realignment will influence voter sentiment and ultimately impact the outcome of the election, making it a compelling and closely watched development in the lead-up to the polls.
India And Maldives
The Maldives, situated strategically in the Indian Ocean, has been heavily influenced by its larger neighbours, specifically India and, more recently, China. The historical context of these relationships sheds light on the evolving geopolitical dynamics in the region.
Diplomatic relations between India and the Maldives were established on November 1, 1956, marking the beginning of a strong bond characterized by mutual respect, cooperation, and shared interests. India played a pivotal role in helping the Maldives gain global recognition, including support for its United Nations membership in September 1965. This friendship has translated into tangible strategic, economic, and military partnerships.
From a strategic perspective, India has consistently acted as a protector, ensuring the security and sovereignty of the Maldives within the broader Indian Ocean framework. This collaborative defence strategy has led to regular consultations on regional challenges, ensuring both nations share common viewpoints.
Economically, the partnership was significantly boosted in 1981 when India and the Maldives signed a comprehensive trade agreement, fostering robust economic engagement. They both share a vision for regional economic growth and have actively participated as founding members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and signatories to the South Asia Free Trade Agreement.
In terms of maritime boundaries, India and the Maldives have successfully resolved disputes, exemplified by their peaceful delineation in 1976. Despite a brief disagreement in 1982 over Minicoy Island, the Maldives’ swift affirmation that it did not claim Indian territory underscored the deep trust between the two nations. India places great importance on the Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian Ocean, leading to extensive collaborations on security and defence matters, joint military exercises, maritime security dialogues, and counter-terrorism efforts.
India’s economic presence in the Maldives is substantial, involving infrastructure projects and flourishing trade relations. The Greater Male Project, backed by significant Indian financial support in 2022, exemplifies this economic commitment. India has also proven itself as a reliable ally during crises, whether they are political, as in ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988, or natural, such as during the 2004 tsunami, and through the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative during the Sars-COV2 pandemic.
China in Maldives
In contrast, China established formal diplomatic relations with the Maldives in 1972 but significantly expanded its influence, particularly in the 21st century. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been a pivotal component of its engagement with the Maldives, focusing on infrastructural development projects. In contrast to India’s democratic and human rights-oriented approach, China provides investments without imposing these conditions, making its investments appealing, especially during the leadership of figures like Yameen. China regards the Maldives as integral to its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy aimed at increasing influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
China’s infrastructural investments in the Maldives extend beyond economic implications and carry significant geostrategic weight. The current Maldivian leader, Muizzu, faces a challenging decision. While India’s longstanding and multifaceted relationships offer stability and trust, China’s economic prowess and unconditional approach present enticing opportunities. Striking a balance between these partnerships is vital for the Maldives to safeguard its national interests and autonomy. A pronounced shift towards China introduces the risk of falling into a debt trap and potentially straining the Maldives’ enduring amicable relations with India and numerous Western countries.
The recent election and the victory of Mohamed Muizzu, who advocates for stronger ties with China, are emblematic of the Maldives’ evolving foreign relations. While historical bonds with India are strong, the appeal of China’s investments and non-interference approach presents a challenging choice for Maldives.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)