Maldives' main opposition leader and presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih addresses a crowd during a campaign rally in the Maldives capital Male, ahead of presidential elections. Photo: AFP

Abdulla Yameen, the pro-China president of the Maldives, conceded electoral defeat today (September 24) to opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, widely viewed as an ally of India.

Solih won a resounding 58.3% of the popular vote, but a delighted New Delhi could not wait until the final tally was announced to heap diplomatic praise on the democratic result.

“We welcome the successful completion of the third Presidential election”, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement when only preliminary results were known. “We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory.”

Beijing has not yet reacted to the outcome of an election that was widely viewed as a proxy battle for which side the small island republic will take in the two Asian giants’ battle for influence in a strategically important part of the Indian Ocean.

To be sure, China and the Maldives’ friendly relations predated Yameen’s rise to power in 2013. But it was during his presidency — and much to the chagrin of the country’s traditional ally India — that much closer ties were developed.

In September 2014, China’s president Xi Jinping visited the Maldives and a deal was struck with a Chinese firm to upgrade its international airport, which is located on Hulhule, a separate island near the capital Male.

China also undertook to build a 1.4-kilometer bridge linking Hulhule with Male which was completed on August 30 this year and then inaugurated by Yameen. In December 2014, only two months after Xi’s visit, the Maldives signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing in support of Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the first countries worldwide to do so.

Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour

The airport extension, island-linking bridge and other infrastructural projects were all part of the BRI plan. In 2017, 300,000 Chinese tourists arrived in Maldives, more than from any other global country. By any measure, China-Maldivian economic relations boomed under Yameen.

They were also coming together strategically. Earlier this year China and the Maldives announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo, the westernmost atoll in the north.

A writer for The Times of India wrote at the time that the proposed facility would “allow the Chinese a vantage point of an important Indian Ocean shipping route…[and] effectively open a Chinese maritime front against India.”

Whether that is the case — or if the Chinese are simply interested in keeping a close eye on vital shipping lines, including those that transport its oil imports from the Middle East — is open to speculation.

But the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), part of the alliance that supported Solih at the recent election, suggested at the time that it could be used for military purposes. It was a strategic red line that India did not want China to cross, but what India could do to prevent it from happening was never made clear by Indian security officials and analysts.

The Maldives is a tiny country in terms of area and population — only 417,000 people live on its 298 square kilometers of land — but its more than 1,000 coral islands and atolls cover a huge maritime area stretching 750 kilometers from the north to the south.

Because of its proximity to India, New Delhi has always considered it to be within its regional sphere of influence. That’s been seen in past Indian interventions to quell unrest in the archipelago.

Map showing Indian and Chinese strategic assets in the Indian Ocean centered on Maldives. Image: Facebook

In November 1988, for instance, India’s then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sent 1,600 soldiers to aid the Maldivian government after a group of Tamil Tiger militants from Sri Lanka landed on the islands and attempted to overthrow the government, presumably to establish a rebel base.

For three decades — from 1978 to 2008 — the Maldives was under the authoritarian rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who incidentally is Yameen’s half-brother. The country developed its world-famous tourism industry during Gayoom’s tenure, boosting living standards across the republic.

But it was also a time marked by rampant corruption. In 2008, to the surprise of many, Gayoom was defeated in the country’s first truly democratic election, paving the way for Mohamed Nasheed, a youthful former political prisoner, to take power.

He opened a new, more democratic chapter in the country’s political history and retained the country’s close relations with India. But Nasheed was forced to resign under controversial circumstances in 2012, and was imprisoned once again in 2015 while Yameen was in power.

The circumstances surrounding Nasheed’s arrest were described by rights group Amnesty International as “politically motivated” and also condemned by the US State Department.

In 2016, he was allowed to leave for Britain, where he was granted asylum. In February this year, during a political crisis at home triggered by Yameen’s refusal to release political dissidents, Nasheed appealed to India and the US to intervene. He even asked India to send an official “with enough clout” to go there “backed by the military.”

Maldives’ self-exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed (L) and president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in Colombo, August 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ishara Kodikara

Nasheed, perhaps to garner sympathy from India and the West, leveraged the crisis to accuse China, which made significant inroads into the Maldives after his fall from power, of grabbing land on islands in moves that could have military applications.

The Chinese embassy in Male refuted those claims, saying that such statements “undermined the security of the region” and “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

The state-run Chinese tabloid Global Times ran a story on February 13 stating that “China will stop Indian military action in the Maldives” — without saying exactly how — and that there was no “righteous cause” for armed intervention without United Nations backing.

India did not intervene militarily in the February crisis, waiting instead for elections to be held.

When the result was announced, Nasheed, who has spent most of his time in exile in Sri Lanka, spoke to a group of journalists in Colombo urging the Sri Lankan government to “engage more robustly in the process” of ensuring a smooth transfer of power to the new president-elect.

Nasheed still serves as the chairman of the MDP, which together with three other political groupings chose Solih to stand against Yameen in the election. The actual transfer of presidential power will not take place until November, and it is unclear what may happen in the interim in light of the high strategic stakes.

India, which was effectively sidelined under Yameen, will surely do what it can to back up the new president’s claim to power through a peaceful and stable transition. How China will react to Solih’s election and its likely loss of influence in an island nation that has become strategically important to its rising regional interests remains to be seen.

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