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‘India out’, ‘China in’ under new Maldives president? Not so fast

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After a fiercely contested presidential race in the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu emerged victorious on September 30. While many painted the election as an India vs China referendum, I argue that the triumph of Muizzu, whose party has pushed an “India out” strategy for years, does not mean a “China in” administration.

There will be a subtle tilt to China but domestic factors will steer the administration towards a balanced foreign policy.

The Maldives has seen much political upheaval in the past year. Abdulla Yameen, leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and president from 2013-2018, was convicted of money-laundering and corruption last December. This disqualified the leading opposition candidate from the presidential race.

Yameen’s PPM is part of the Progressive Alliance coalition, which includes the People’s National Congress. After heated debates in the coalition, it decided to field Muizzu as the presidential candidate, with reluctant support from Yameen.

It was far from smooth sailing, either, for the incumbent Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). There was a bitter contest as outgoing president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih fought his one-time mentor and party chief Mohamed Nasheed for the party candidacy. Solih won but Nasheed – who was speaker of parliament and a former president himself – left with his supporters to form a new party to contest the election.
This proved costly, as it divided the voter base for the ruling party and gave Muizzu the edge in the first round of polling. In the run-off election between the two, Muizzu secured the win by pocketing 54 per cent of the vote. Muizzu’s campaign focused on two broad themes: clean governance and the claim that the pro-India leanings of Solih’s government had eroded the Maldives’ sovereignty.
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih embraces Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his presidential inauguration in Male, on November 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / PIB
When in opposition, the Progressive Alliance spearheaded the “India out” movement, which has attempted to fuel and exploit anti-India sentiment on the island nation. It focuses on features of India’s investment in the Maldives, the defence partnership and India’s security provisions to claim that New Delhi has eroded the Maldives’ sovereignty.

During former president Yameen’s tenure, the Maldives significantly expanded its relationship with China. Many observers have been quick to predict that the victory of this faction will result in a resumption of warm ties with Beijing to the detriment of New Delhi. This, however, is a simplistic portrayal of the election results, and ignores the nuanced domestic landscape.

There are three domestic factors which make big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects and a “China in” stance akin to that adopted by the Yameen regime more complicated for the incoming Muizzu government. These include economic distress, the pro-India MDP’s parliament majority and security considerations.
Over the past decade, India and China have been tussling for influence in the Maldives through the politicisation of developmental aid and infrastructure investments. Under Yameen, the Maldives joined the Belt and Road Initiative, and China completed major infrastructure projects, including upgrading the Maldives’ main international airport and building the China-Maldives friendship bridge.
Then-president Abdulla Yameen shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 7, 2017. Photo: AFP
The period also saw the two nations agree to establish a free-trade agreement and a Joint Ocean Observation Centre. But these initiatives were shelved after Solih’s MDP came to power, as they looked to invite more investment from India.
The China projects have accumulated significant debt for the Maldivian government and concerns about a debt default are high. Government debt is close to 115 per cent of gross domestic product and more than half of the external debt is owed to Beijing.

Even though the economic situation is improving, with a return of tourists to pre-Covid levels, pragmatism dictates austerity measures and carefully calculated policies. The government’s pro-China stance, therefore, may not see the same level of large infrastructure projects, given the danger of external debt becoming unsustainable.

Why are China and India so interested in the Maldives?

Another balancing factor in foreign policy is the pro-India MDP’s parliamentary majority. It holds 65 of the 87 legislative seats in the People’s Majlis – an overwhelming majority. Even though the president enjoys the greater share of power, pro-China initiatives will invoke political debate and strong criticism. The Progressive Alliance will need to consolidate power in the parliamentary elections next year if it wants to allow more wiggle room for “India first” factions.

Last, but not least, security considerations will play a pivotal role in moderating the “India out” rhetoric. Muizzu has said that efforts to expel foreign soldiers will begin from his first day in office, directed at the 75 Indian soldiers stationed to train and operate donated military assets.

While this suggests that “India out” was not merely a campaign tactic, past administrations have shown that, despite broader foreign policy tilts, defence cooperation with India continues, albeit mutedly. India continues to be the primary security partner for the Maldives and unless China steps up its cooperation in this domain, Maldives’ foreign policy will not look to completely alienate India.

Moderation due to domestic pressures may restrict certain opportunities, but avenues for enhanced China-Maldives cooperation remain. In a meeting with Chinese Communist Party officials last year, Muizzu said his party’s return to office would “ script a further chapter of strong ties between our two countries”.

In all probability, ties will indeed strengthen, but it seems unlikely that they will reach the levels seen before Solih came to power. Still, Beijing has ample reason for optimism in Muizzu’s presidency.

Harris Amjad is an independent analyst on South Asian geopolitics and human security issues

Article was originally published from here

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