There is more in play than openly apparent in an intra-governmental battle between the judiciary and the legislature now underway in the Maldives.
Behind the political tiff is a long-time power struggle between pro-Chinese and pro-Indian politicians in the strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago, where both Asian powers are vying for advantage and influence.
On June 16, the Maldivian parliament vowed to clean up the country’s judiciary by voting unanimously to back a corruption probe conducted by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), a governmental legal watchdog entity, targeting Supreme Court Justice Abdulla Didi.
He stands accused of taking a US$1 million bribe to send former pro-Indian president Mohamed Nasheed to jail in 2015. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has issued rulings in an attempt to prevent the JSC from investigating Didi, claiming parliamentary interference in the judicial process.
The alleged bribe was paid at a time when the Maldives was ruled by Nasheed’s main rival, president Abdulla Yameen, who steered the country away from its traditionally close relationship with India and established close ties with China.
Yameen lost the 2018 presidential election and was succeeded by Nasheed’s close friend Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The present parliament has vowed to clean up the Maldivian judiciary not only by investigating Didi but also pursuing criminal charges against Yameen, who stands accused of corruption, money-laundering and theft.
His alleged crimes include accepting illegal payments for leasing islands to Chinese interests for tourism development which people, among them Nasheed, fear could pave the way for Beijing’s strategic influence over the archipelago.
The Maldives may be a tiny country in terms of area and population — only 417,000 people live on its 298 square kilometers of land — but its 1,000-plus coral islands and atolls cover a huge maritime area that stretches 750 kilometers from north to south.
In recent years, China has made strong inroads into the South Asian maritime region to protect its lines of communications and shipping routes with the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
That has seen in the rising presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, a new military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and its naval entry into the Middle East’s Suez Canal.
Strategic interests have been paved through economic means, including big Chinese loans and credits to regional countries which has steadily made them financially dependent of Beijing.
That, naturally, worries India, which has a naval base on the Lakshadweep islands immediately to the north of the Maldives.
Then there is the United States, which maintains a base at Diego Garcia in the nearby British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which provides crucial logistical support for America’s military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
In December 2014, when Yameen was still in power, the Maldives became one of the first countries to sign up to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
A 1.4 kilometer bridge linking the capital Male with the airport on Hulhule, a separate island, was built under the scheme; China has pledged to upgrade Male’s airport as well.
Then came loans and credits for other development projects as well as controversial land leases. More alarm bells began ringing in neighboring India when China and the Maldives announced in December 2017 plans to build a Joint Ocean Observatory Station on one of the northern islands.
That project, which the Indians did not believe was for entirely peaceful purposes, now appears to have been scrapped, though no formal announcement has been made on its status.
Nasheed, now a key adviser to Solih, told the Financial Times in February that the Maldives’ total debt to China could be as much as $3 billion, a huge sum for a small country with a gross domestic product (GDP) of just $4.9 billion in 2017.
Ibrahim Ameer, the Maldives current finance minister, has reportedly asked China to reduce the sums owed and amend repayment schedules, similar to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s request to Beijing upon taking power from his pro-China and allegedly corrupt predecessor Najib Razak.
So far, though, China has done little to address the new and evolving political situation in the Maldives other than to congratulate Solih on his election victory last year and issue a statement calling for “continuity and stability” in the island nation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the other hand, landed in the Maldives on June 8 on his first foreign visit after his landslide victory in May’s elections, which secured him another term in office with a solid parliamentary majority.
The Indian media made sensational headlines about a Hindu fundamentalist prime minister choosing the world’s smallest Muslim country for his first overseas visit. Religion, however, was certainly not the main motivation of the visit.
While Modi’s address to the Maldivian parliament stressed cooperation against terrorism, there was little doubt that China was the overriding issue on his diplomatic agenda.
India has recently pledged to provide the Maldives with budgetary support to wean its dependence on China, including a $1.4 billion pledge last December to bolster its “socio-economic” programs. Still, New Delhi is not expected to compete dollar-for-dollar with China’s rich check-book diplomacy.
Instead, India is moving to strengthen bilateral ties through strategic means. Two significant defense-related projects were inaugurated during Modi’s visit: a coastal surveillance radar system and a composite training center for the Maldivian military.
The establishment of radar stations in the Maldives is an old project, but the project was stalled when Yameen was in power.
In November last year, only weeks after Yameen was ousted, India resumed the project, which also includes the establishment of similar surveillance stations in Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles, as well as along India’s own coasts.
The surveillance scheme has been dubbed by the media as “India’s chain of radars”; there is little doubt that New Delhi’s facilities will be most closely monitoring China’s traffic in the region.
There is also no doubt that India’s and America’s interests are fast converging in the Indian Ocean vis-à-vis China, through the US-Indian strategic partnership is fraught with problems and pitfalls including over trade.
Whether it is high-level corruption allegations and court cases in the Maldives, radar stations and military bases on the ocean’s scattered islands, or competing bids to woo small nations better known as tourist paradises, the complexities of the great power games playing out in the Indian Ocean are clearly intensifying.
But as the battle lines in the region are less clear than other percolating theaters of great power rivalry, the lack of clear boundaries and often hidden interests raises the potential for miscalculation and conflict, including over who has sway over a far-flung island state like Maldives.