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The 2023 Maldives Election: Is it so simple as ‘India Out’ and ‘China In’?

Lachlan Kappa


Source: Reuters

Background to the Maldives Election Tradition


Until 2008, the Maldives operated on a one-party system in which a President was elected through referendum, and remained in power for five years. This lasted until the movement for reform and democratisation prevailed in 2004 due to the nation’s increasing civil society base, growing from scarcely any nongovernmental organisational activity to having 20 nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in 2008. Political opposition also became increasingly more organised and credible contenders. This came to a peak during the leadership of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in power from 1978 to 2008. 


Since the introduction of multi-party presidential elections on 8 October 2008, the rising strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in recent decades has encouraged Maldivian domestic politics to develop a growing apprehension towards Chinese and Indian influence.


Previous Presidents have typically leaned towards one of the two giants, polarising the political landscape as debates on the effects of foreign influence continue to shape policy. 


Over the last ten years and three Presidents, the changing in foreign leanings has mimicked a pendulum swing. Analysing onwards from Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (in office from 17 November 2013 to 16 November 2018), he turned to China and received more than $1b in Chinese loans in order to finance large-scale infrastructure projects. Eventually losing power in 2018, he attracted widespread criticism of corruption and having been accused of caving to China’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (17 November 2018 to 16 November 2023) embraced his landslide victory over Yameen and undertook an overt anti-corruption and 'India First' policy, accepting large bailouts to remedy the substantial debts. He declared that India was their key international partner and “closest friend”.


The India-Maldives relationship is steeped in a history of close trade, security and economic cooperation, and military intervention. The India-Maldives rhetoric is malleable, and framed by politicians as either neighbourly benevolence or overbearing hegemony. This has not changed India’s persistence to remain close, with the support of the United States, in competing against China’s attempts to take a leading role in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. 


China’s recent surge of regional economic funding and infrastructural development has captured the attention of many within the Maldives, and the broader Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s strategic engagements with Malé largely revolved around laying the groundwork for Xi Xinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) under Yameen, propping up the island to become an important stop along the ‘String of Pearls’. 


The 2023 Election


Leading up to the election this year, the relationship with India stood as a major agenda as they rose to become Malé’s largest development and security partner under Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Leading as parliamentary leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) since 2011, he and his ruling coalition, consisting of the Maldives Democratic Alliance and the Adhaalath Party, reciprocated India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, with their own ‘India First’ policy. 


Over the past five years, The Democrats and the Progressive Alliance, consisting of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), led by ex-President Gayoom, have taken advantage of the incrementally growing anti-India sentiments since 2018. These sentiments grew on account of India’s perceived overbearing presence, and the loss of Maldivian sovereignty. Mohamed Muizzu, a former construction minister and mayor of Malé had to step in for candidacy after the disqualification and arrest of former-President Yameen of the PPM. After losing office in 2018, he was charged with human rights abuses, bribery and money laundering during his term in office. 


The 2023 elections resulted in a second round presidential run-off vote on 30 September, in which Mohamed Muizzu defeated Solih with 54 per cent of the vote. This is seen as a win for China, as his ‘India Out’ campaign prevailed, meaning that steps will be taken to reduce India’s on-soil military presence, and the lines of Maldivian sovereignty will be redrawn.


Geopolitical Importance of the Maldives


In recent decades, the Maldives has attracted the major world players, who have been vying to increase their strategic presence in the region. The United States and India have been in direct contest with China to court the Maldives, and bolster their own influence in the dynamic Indo-Pacific. India in particular sees the Maldives as a base for security projection and to act as their ‘eyes and ears’ in the Indian Ocean. Until Muizzu’s victory, India had stable military access on Maldivian soil with stationed military personnel.


Furthermore, India views China’s advancements as a direct encroachment into its traditional sphere of influence.


Similarly to India, Washington sees the Maldives as a “valuable partner” in upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.” They recognise immediate concern in Malé’s susceptibility to Chinese financial allurement, as part of their strategic encirclement of India. The leasing of various ports to China, such as in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Gwadar and Karachi in Pakistan, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, have raised sufficient alarm bells as Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s regional presence is only assumed to grow.

  

Vital international sea lanes of trade and communication pass through its territory, linking East Africa, the Middle East, India and South-East Asia in a pivotal central location. The Indian Ocean region accounts for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne oil and trade transit. Therefore, protecting these routes is of vital importance to those with vested interests, such as China, who is dependent on Middle Eastern oil from the Gulf states. 


India has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Maldivian infrastructure, with no indication of slowing down. During Solih’s presidency, India approved a US$400 million line of credit for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project (now the Thilamale bridge), aiming to connect the capital Malé with the Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi islands. 


Likewise, China intends to maintain its economic presence in the Maldives through the BRI. Although, this may not be to the same degree as pre-COVID levels. This is partly due to the sensitivities surrounding former President Yameen’s arrest. His unsustainable borrowing from China caused a considerable distaste among domestic opinion, having borrowed around US$1.5 to $3 billion between 2013 and 2018.


Is it so simple as ‘India Out’ and ‘China In’?


For years, the PPM, and now by consequence Muizzu, have subscribed to the ‘India Out’ strategy. Yet, after the strongly contested presidential race, this does not mean that its longstanding neighbour is blatantly ousted now that a ‘pro-Chinese’ candidate has risen to leadership.


Historically, close cooperation between India and the Maldives has created division in domestic politics in the young democracy. Among the various parties and opinions, there is a fine line between a healthy strategic proximity and perceived overdependence on India. Former President Abdulla Yameen launched the ‘India Out’ campaign because of this exact notion of “overdependence”, using decisions from the former government to fuel their agenda. One example was the signing of a dockyard in Ulthuru Thilhafalhu on 21 February 2021, to construct a joint-naval base.  


Yet, in order to live up to the ‘India Out’ campaign narrative, Muizzu will have to publicly distance the Maldives from India to some degree. Such steps have already been taken, as he has given a deadline of 15 March for the expulsion of the 75 Indian military personnel stationed on New Delhi-sponsored surveillance aircraft and radar stations. 


However, Mohamed Muizzu’s victory does not paint such a simple geopolitical picture of ‘China in’ and ‘India out’. He will undoubtedly have to balance the two relationships and downplay the India-China divide. It is in the Maldives’ best interests to keep India and China as close, reliable, and advantageous allies. Muizzu highlighted this in his inaugural speech by stating “I will be friendly with nations… (and) I will not harbour enmity or jealousy… I will respect our neighbours and other countries.” However, most importantly, he will “draw lines of independence and sovereignty very clearly.” 


Despite this, there appears to be no loss of amity since Muizzu’s victory, despite his bluntly titled campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Muizzu on his success, adding that India remains “committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship” and infrastructural projects and bilateral cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, New Delhi will presumably have to concede on Muizzu’s demands of removing its military personnel in order to keep relations stable and as smooth as possible.


What Drives Election Results? Domestic Factors or Foreign Influence?


While the India-China tug of war for influence in the Indian Ocean has unquestionably influenced the Maldives’ domestic politics, the September election revealed that domestic political manoeuvring is more crucial than the larger external geopolitical influences. The overemphasis on the India-China forces takes away from the exceedingly problematic internal issues which affect the young democracy. 


A slew of domestic problems impact the Maldives, such as: a housing crisis, improving living standards, protecting Islamic identity, growing the centralised economic base, advancing infrastructural projects like the Greater Malé Connectivity Project, corruption, a looming debt, environmental sustainability and climate change. These have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years. So, while politicians inherently propagate campaigns which concentrate solely on foreign interference, whether that be ‘India Out’ or ‘India In’, it is not the sole force which dictates the results of elections.


Malé needs both to benefit


It is quintessential that the Maldives retains a mutually beneficial relationship between India and China. President Muizzu will likely take the advantages he can, and reinforce the Maldives’ sovereignty without attracting criticism of overdependence on a certain camp. 


The island nation desperately needs an amicable Indian relationship to thrive in their geopolitical bubble. India provides important tourism revenue and strategic, military security, economic assistance and cooperation. For example, India provided 100,000 vaccine doses to tourist industry workers during the global travel industry lockdowns, enabling the picturesque country to kickstart their economy.  


On the other hand, Chinese tourism and infrastructural developments like the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge (now Sinamalé Bridge), the upgrading of Velana International Airport in 2014, and the construction of 7,000 social housing units in Hulhumale are examples of large-scale progress. 


However, for Muizzu’s new administration, it might be difficult to diverge from the commitments of ongoing projects, as repaying loans from Chinese investments comprise nearly 80% of the Maldives’ total debt. Government debt is close to 115 per cent of gross domestic product as of October 2023, with more than half of external debt being owed to Beijing.


Overall, the Maldivian election tradition, including this year's elections in September, continue to demonstrate the nature of the larger geopolitical tug of war between India and China. However, as important as foreign investment and influence is to the country’s politics, the pressing domestic issues are also important in determining the results. 


Mohamed Muizzu’s election win does not mean China has overwhelmingly nudged India out of the picture for his next term; indeed, the Maldives will need to balance both of these relationships efficiently. Despite his “India Out” campaign, culminating in the promise to remove their military presence, Muizzu needs India just as much as China in the long term. 


Likewise, India and China need the Maldives on their side. India, with Washington in its ear, is concerned with China’s regional expansion. Therefore, its emphasis on climate and developmental diplomacy, and Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy is all too pertinent. China too requires a firm outpost to bolster its ‘String of Pearls’ and BRI initiatives. 


Therefore, the Maldives’ strategic position guarantees that foreign powers will indefinitely and persistently invest in advancing their relations with them, demonstrating that the geopolitical struggle between India and China over the Maldives remains a constant struggle.


 

Lachlan Kappa graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations), with an emphasis on History and French studies. He has developed an interest in analysing security and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific and Francosphere.

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