Map of Maldives: iStock
Map of Maldives: iStock

The small island nation of Maldives, which overlooks the sea lanes running through the Indian Ocean, seems to have the wind in its sails. The islanders can now step out of the murky mess they have lived with for some time now. However, it isn’t the sea breeze, but the power of the recently concluded polls that’s driving Maldives’ journey out of the marasmus. Strongman Abdulla Yameen was defeated in the presidential election.

The Maldives election on September 30 delivered a clear verdict. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (Ibu) of the Maldivian Democratic Party beat Yameen by more than 38,000 votes. Yameen received 96,052 votes, while Solih’s share was 134,705. His party’s share was 58% in an election that witnessed an overall turnout of 89.2%.

Yameen’s fall is of his own making. He had tried every means available to subvert Malidives’ democracy. Since the beginning of the year, a degree of desperation seems to have influenced his decisions. When the Supreme Court handed down a judgment in February freeing political prisoners and quashing opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed’s conviction, Yameen responded by arresting two judges. He also sacked the police chief. After inducting two judges of his own, he had the court’s judgment overturned. He also declared a state of emergency, nailing the country’s democracy with the last arrow from his dictatorial quiver.

Unfortunately for Yameen, he chose the wrong horse to ride through the roughs. Yameen banked on Chinese support rather than garnering the support of Maldivians. He left behind his longtime partner, India, as he built his castle on the Chinese dragon’s fantasies.

An Indian company contracted to extend the airport on an island close to Malé was thrown out in favor of the Chinese. Yameen also gave the contract for building the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge (CMFB) linking Malé to the airport to the Chinese. The 1.39km CMFB will cost US$198 million. Of this amount, $ 113 million is Chinese aid and grants, while the balance will be covered by a loan of  US$71 million from EXIM Bank of China and $12 million from the Maldives’ budget. The contract is with a Chinese company, CCCC Second Harbour Engineering, which was blacklisted by the World Bank due to fraudulent practices during a road improvement project in the Philippines.

The Maldives Central Bank and international financial institutions have already expressed concern about Maldives’ debts. A Chinese-built 25-storey hospital project in Malé is costing $140 million. Yameen also leased Feydhoo Finolhu Island to the Chinese. In addition, a fair number of islands have reportedly been handed over for development as tourist resorts. Maldives’ biggest revenue-earning industry remains tourism.

Incidentally, Maldives did not even have a Chinese embassy until 2012. However, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has changed that, powering Maldives’ rise to eminence in the great game being played out in the Indo-Pacific. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Myanmar and some African countries are experiencing similar changes.

The BRI is attempting to draw more and more countries into a debt trap, forcing them to lease out strategic assets and cede control to China. In the case of Maldives, the opposition parties allege that 70% of the country’s debt is repayable to China. It calls for $92 million being paid out for debt servicing to Chinese banks and institutions, roughly equivalent to 10% of Maldives’ annual budget. In addition, China has signed a free trade agreement with Maldives.

Obviously, the new president will have his work cut out for him when he formally takes the reins of power in November. Ibu has already stated that he would revisit some contracts given to the Chinese. Among these would be the lease of uninhabited Feydhoo Finolhu Island for tourism for the next 50 years at a cost of $4 million.

Maldives’ geographical location in the Indian Ocean overlooking strategically vital international sea lanes makes establishing a foothold there attractive to China. It’s also because of this strategic location that the international community wants to ensure that Maldives stays out of China’s orbit and remains a stable and peaceful state. This is critically important for the security of neighboring India.

The stakes being extremely high, all eyes were focused on the elections in Maldives. Some press reports suggested that Indian and US naval ships were in position to respond should Yameen sabotage the polls or interfere with the fairly large migrant community, including Indians. Ibu’s win has provided some respite to the Indians, with most countries looking at India to ensure stability in the region.

Notwithstanding Ibu’s victory, it will require some effort to ensure that the Chinese influence is contained hereafter. The Chinese will use the same inducements that they have used in the past to draw Maldives into a debt trap.

The new government in Malé will also be under pressure from domestic groups to increase growth. The Indians will not be able to match Chinese investments. New Delhi will obviously have to find a way out. With both European nations and the US concerned about the path Maldives charts hereafter, it would be advisable for India to use its influence to ensure developmental funding for Maldives from international institutions and  other nations is legitimate. A consortium may provide the answer.

India also needs to help develop Maldives’ tourism industry. It could be a win-win situation if the Indian private sector gets the necessary support from New Delhi to speed up the pace of development.

The Chinese seem to be quite concerned about the election outcome. They are now promoting the idea of India and China teaming up in Maldives. The Global Times, a Beijing organ, reports, “Beijing has come up with a constructive “two-plus-one” mechanism – China and India plus another South Asian country – as a demonstration of sincerity.”

Maldives has a problem with ISIS elements that have infiltrated the islands or are returning now that the movement has been severely mauled in Iraq and Syria. Again, Indian assistance in training the Maldivian security forces, police and intelligence agencies is necessary.

India needs to reach out to the common man by creating jobs and providing the necessary support for training and entrepreneurship. Maldives needs help strengthening its democratic institutions and governance. China will need to be contained as the people of Maldives work to establish a free and stable sovereign state.

S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.

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