Maldives will prioritize own interest, not India’s

(Global Times)

Maldives’ opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the nation’s presidential election on Monday. By a margin of 16.7 percent, incumbent Abdulla Yameen conceded defeat. “Pro-China Maldives president Yameen loses election, India welcomes result,” claimed the Press Trust of India and the New York Times called Solih’s winning a “surprise victory.”

Maldives’ relationship with China was one of the main issues during the election campaign. Relations with China were obviously treated as a major factor in the election and there are thus naturally two factions – pro-China and anti-China. But the presidential election in the Maldives is supposed to have nothing to do with other countries, be it China, India, or any Western nations.

The Maldives was caught up in a political crisis earlier this year when troops in riot gear surrounded the country’s Supreme Court in Malé. Security forces arrested an ex-president, which put Yameen under fire. Some say the crisis was “the culmination of a standoff between President Abdulla Yameen and the Maldives Supreme Court.” But India was playing behind the scene.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Maldives in September 2014. The country then kicked off its participation in China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Joint projects include the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge and other major infrastructure programs. The Maldives failed to complete these projects on its own and sought China’s help, with the latter responding positively, triggering concern from India. New Delhi accused Yameen of cooperating with China, badmouthed BRI, and said Beijing was expanding its power to the Indian Ocean.

India has had a strong influence on the Maldives, so it played a major role in the political crisis. That’s also the reason why Maldives’ China policy became a major subject during the nation’s presidential election, the result of which may somewhat affect the nation’s ties with China.

During the campaign, Solih said many things that India approved of. Will he become a pro-India president? It is to be seen. In my opinion, there isn’t any independent sovereign nation’s leader who is simply pro one country. Instead, they are pro self-interest. From this perspective, if Solih wants to protect Maldives’ national interest, he needs to evaluate the consequences. He needs to evaluate whether unilateral and pro-India policies are in accord with Maldives’ interest.

Solih won the presidential election. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is bound to launch unilateral and pro-India policies, unless they are totally in line with the country’s interest. The truth is, they will only harm Maldives’ interest.

China-Maldives cooperation is reciprocal, and the infrastructural projects can improve people’s lives and development. In this context, I don’t agree that Solih’s unfriendly words over China during the campaign mean that he will be a pro-India president. Completely swinging to India cannot guarantee that New Delhi would make as many contributions to Maldives’ development as Malé expected. Take Sri Lanka’s Port of Hambantota. Sri Lanka turned to China after it failed to seek investment from India. However, India later called Chinese investment there an act of expansion. Eventually, Sri Lanka’s new government has to cooperate with both China and India. Likewise, after Solih assumes office, he may launch balanced policies that serve the national interest so as to reduce turmoil in the country. China has never been opposed to other countries cooperating with the Maldives, but China hopes that the election result will not turn into a zero-sum game.

Western countries believe that no major nation wants to cooperate with a small country such as the Maldives without any strategic goals. China believes Indian Ocean is important, but Beijing doesn’t even have a complete Indian Ocean strategy. However, when Beijing built support facility in Djibouti, the move attracted widespread attention from Western countries, which speculated that China is trying to expand its influence. These episodes, including the Maldivian presidential election, have reminded Beijing that it may face increasing risk in its further overseas investment.

The article is compiled by Global Times reporter Li Qingqing based on an interview with Zhao Gancheng, director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.