India notches a win over China as tropical island changes leadership

  • Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the presidential election in the Maldives on Sunday, ushering in a democratic revival that could push the country closer to India.
  • The Maldives has historically been an ally of India's, but the previous regime of Abdulla Yameen established strong ties with China.
  • "The newly-elected government in the Maldives may well reverse the country's drift into China's strategic sphere. But more than likely it will be just another chapter in long-term strategic competition between India and China across the region," says David Brewster from the Australian National University.
Incoming President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldives
AFP/Getty Images
Incoming President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldives

The election of a new president in the Maldives could see the South Asian nation re-enter India's orbit of influence following a long period of close ties with China.

The tropical archipelago, located 400 kilometers from India, has historically relied on New Delhi for security and trade. But those ties weakened when President Abdulla Yameen took power in 2013 and began cozying up to China, the world's second-largest economy.

However, last Sunday's presidential election could change that dynamic.

Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won 58 percent of the vote on Sunday, defeating Yameen in a poll that was considered fair despite concerns about transparency in the run-up to the ballot.

Solih's administration may now restore civil liberties that were previously restrained under Yameen's authoritarian regime, which was characterized by a deteriorating rule of law, the jailing of critics, religious fundamentalism and emergency rule.

Solih's party is on track to reinstate freedom of expression, implement judicial reforms and clamp down on corruption, Alyssa Ayres, a senior South Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a note.

As his pro-democracy government is more politically aligned with New Delhi, Solih will likely repair ties with India and "veer back to the more traditional close regional partnership," Ayres stated.

India welcomed Sunday's election result.

"This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law," the country's Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

A campaign rally for Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the Maldives' capital of Male on Sept. 22, 2018.
Ahmed Shurau | AFP | Getty Images
A campaign rally for Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the Maldives' capital of Male on Sept. 22, 2018.

Still, Solih has made clear that his country won't be subject to the whims of foreign powers.

When Indian parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy tweeted in August about India staging a military intervention if Sunday's election was rigged, Solih objected to the the rhetoric and insisted his country's sovereignty was "paramount."

Re-assessing Chinese investment

Under Yameen, the Maldives received significant grants and loans from China's Belt and Road Initiative. Those funds have gone towards upgrading the international airport in the capital of Male and a bridge linking the airport to town. But it's also sparked concerns that the Maldives' economy — heavily reliant on tourism dollars — could be taking on debt it can't afford, which is an issue rampant among Belt and Road nations.

Solih's party has previously said it would review Chinese investments. But given the unparalleled scale of Chinese capital, something India can't match, Solih isn't likely to ignore Beijing.

Speculation is rife over how the new leadership will repay Chinese loans, N. Sathiya Moorthy, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, said in a note.

When Sri Lanka couldn't pay off its Chinese debt, Moorthy noted, the country had to sell a majority stake in its Hambantota port to Beijing in a controversial deal believed to have risked Colombo's sovereignty.

International observers have long warned of Chinese political influence that accompanies Beijing's loans and could risk the autonomy of small nations such as the Maldives.

Growing India-China rivalry

Historic rivals China and India have been competing for influence in South Asia as Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration looks to build defense and commercial facilities around the region.

"The Maldives has also become a focus for intense strategic competition, with air access rights being a key issue," David Brewster, senior research fellow at the Australian National University, said in a report by the Lowy Institute.

Yameen had requested New Delhi to withdraw Indian helicopters at airfields on the islands of Gan and Laamu, a move that Modi's government suspected was an effort to "clear the decks for a Chinese air and naval presence," Brewster said.

"The newly-elected government in the Maldives may well reverse the country's drift into China's strategic sphere. But more than likely it will be just another chapter in long-term strategic competition between India and China across the region," Brewster wrote.

WATCH: How KFC won over China