Maldives election run-off pitched as fork in the road between India and China
As the archipelago of the Maldives goes to an election run-off on Saturday, it will not just be two presidential candidates on the ballot.
This election is being pitched as a larger geopolitical battle between India and China, which over the past decade have been engaged in a tug-of-war to gain influence over the Maldives.
While the tussle is not new, the narrative of India versus China has reached a fever pitch in this election, where opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu is trying to unseat the government of Mohamed Solih and has put resistance to India’s perceived influence over the Maldives at the forefront of his agenda.
Since Solih came to power in a surprise win in 2018, he has moved the country much closer to India – which has historically long ties with the Maldives – while distancing it from Chinese investment that had surged under the previous regime.
Yet Muizzu has accused Solih of endangering the national security of the Maldives with its close ties with India, alleging that the current government has allowed Indian military presence and influence on Maldives territory, which Solih denies.
After neither candidate managed to secure more than 50% of the votes in the first round of elections held in early September, a run-off will be held on Saturday, in a race that is being tightly fought.
“The main opposition narrative is that national sovereignty and independence are under threat, mainly because of India,” said Azim Zahir, a research fellow at the University of Western Australia. “They have been playing up the India threat very vigorously, and increasingly more so in the build up to this run-off election.”
Muizzu’s own allegiances are widely acknowledged to be towards China. When his party, the Progressive Alliance coalition, was previously in power between 2013 and 2017 under President Abdullah Yameen, it pursued a significant pro-China policy, signing a free trade agreement with China and becoming part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road project, accepting billions of dollars in loans from China. Muizzu, who was mayor of the capital, Male, at the time, spearheaded a $200m bridge project paid for by China.
But Yameen’s government also came under criticism for this policy, and accusations he had led the Maldives into a China debt trap were seen to contribute to his loss in 2018.
‘All for India to lose’
Though it is a widely scattered archipelago with a population of just over 500,000, the Maldives holds crucial strategic importance for India and China as well as the west. It is on the pathway of essential east-west cargo shipping lines, including China’s oil supplies from the Gulf. It is also seen as a gateway to larger geopolitical influence and control over the Indian ocean, particularly for China which is growing increasingly assertive in the region.
Yet it is also seen as somewhat unpredictable, having only become a fragile democracy in 2008 after three decades of authoritarian rule. Foreign policy has oscillated wildly in that time between India and China, while corruption and criminality have remained rampant in politics.
For India, which is engaged in a tense border dispute with China, keeping Chinese influence out of its back yard in the Indian Ocean is seen as highly important and under the current Solih government they have invested over $2bn in infrastructure, as well as increasing training and security cooperation, in an apparent bid to deepen influence.
Earlier this year, India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited the Maldives to give them two sea ambulances and sign several development agreements, while emphasising that India was “always willing” to help the Maldives. They have also utilised soft cultural power, opening a highly active Indian cultural centre in Male.
Yet India’s increased activity has also been long been viewed with suspicion by those in the Maldives.
A particular source of contention have been aircraft given to the Maldives by India, which has stationed dozens of military personnel in the country to operate them, leading to allegations of India trying to set up a strategic military presence.
In 2022, former president Yameen began an “India Out campaign” which also gained traction among the hardline Islamist groups. Though Solih swiftly banned the campaign, terming it a “threat to national security”, it only amplified the anti-India rhetoric.
Such has been the anti-India fervour around the election that last week, the Indian high commission in the Maldives was forced to release a statement calling out “fake reports” in the local media which they said were intended to intimidate high commission officials and “adversely affect the friendly relations between India and Maldives”.
While China has kept quiet on the surface, behind the scenes Beijing has been quietly exerting influence, including inviting journalists and politicians on fully funded trips to China, and opening a cultural centre of its own.
Eyes are also on the election in the west, where for many countries, countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific has become a central priority of foreign policy. Not too far away in the Indian Ocean sits the US Diego Garcia naval base, which played a central role in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and is still seen as one of America’s most critical bases in the region. Days before the initial election in September, the US opened its first embassy in the Maldives. The UK and Australia also recently opened embassies.
Regional security is also a crucial factor for India and others in keeping some influence over the Maldives. The concern over Islamist extremism in the country continues to go unaddressed by successive governments and in July, the US treasury department released a list of names of 20 leaders and financial facilitators linked to Islamic State, Isis-Khorasan (Isis-K) and Al-Qa’ida operating in the Maldives.
Nonetheless, Ahmed Shaheed, former Maldives foreign minister, said the geopolitical element of the election had been overblown and it was unlikely that if Muizzu won, as is looking likely, India would be entirely ousted.
“I don’t see a drastic change in the orientation of the modern foreign policy, even if there was a government change: India will likely remain a very strong partner,” he said. “It’s all for India to lose rather than China to gain.”