24 March 2019
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, seen in this picture with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, has been working aggressively to seek closer ties with Beijing. Photo: Aljazeera
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, seen in this picture with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, has been working aggressively to seek closer ties with Beijing. Photo: Aljazeera

Sino-Indian rivalry behind the political turmoil in Maldives

Maldives, the once tranquil island nation lying in the Indian Ocean and a popular destination for holidaymakers, has been threatened by rising sea levels in recent years as a result of global warming.

Worse still, the tiny nation has lately been engulfed by political turmoil, and the crisis has been further compounded by the ongoing tussle for regional leadership between China and India, with the latter long regarding Maldives and the nearby areas as its traditional sphere of influence.

On Feb. 5, Abdulla Yameen, the incumbent president of Maldives, declared a 15-day and nationwide state of emergency in order to stop the country’s supreme court from releasing nine key members of the opposition, including former president Mohamed Nasheed.

Later, on Feb. 20, the Yameen administration announced the extension of the state of emergency by 30 days.

Meanwhile, Yameen has also placed the country’s police commissioner, and the secretary for justice and administration, as well as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, under arrest.

Moreover, the president has also ordered the military to take over the country’s parliament so as to avoid being impeached. Simply put, what Yameen has done over the past few weeks is tantamount to a coup of sorts.

There are two reasons that explain why the ongoing political turmoil in Maldives has drawn international spotlight: First, the nation’s constitutional crisis is a sideshow that is taking place in the context of the strategic rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi in the Indian Ocean.

Second, Maldives is of high strategic and geopolitical value since the country is lying at the center of the Indian Ocean overlooking the major sea route between Europe and Asia. And for decades, India has been regarding the island nation as its strategic backyard.

After Maldives had gained its independence from Britain in 1965, it remained under dictatorial rule until 2008, when the country held its first ever democratic election, in which Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had been in power for 30 years before that, and became president.

A former political prisoner, Nasheed was the first popularly elected leader of Maldives, only to be removed from office just four years later by the military. Then in 2013, Yameen, a younger brother of the former dictator Gayoom, took power and became the new president.

And since Yameen took office, he has inherited the dictatorship from his older brother and begun to mount a massive crackdown on dissent in his country.

Under his rule, government corruption has run so rife that public opinion has been quickly turning against him, with an increasing number of Maldivians looking to the ousted president Nasheed for a regime change.

As a matter of fact both Gayoom and his younger brother Yameen wouldn’t have been able to come to power without the support of India, which, many believe, was the mastermind behind the 2012 coup against former president Nasheed.

Intriguingly though, after Nasheed went into exile in India, his relations with New Delhi, which used to be his enemy, have begun to improve dramatically, thanks to his high-profile anti-China rhetoric. And President Yameen has remained highly alert to the possibility of Nasheed’s political comeback.

However, even though Yameen owed India a great deal in his successful seizure of power 5 years ago, ever since he became president he has been working aggressively to seek closer ties with Beijing while getting increasingly estranged from New Delhi.

A strong indication of the deteriorating relations between Maldives and India is that Yameen is looking to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia rather than India for diplomatic support amid the ongoing political crisis.

China has promised not to interfere in the local affairs of Maldives while offering the country hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid. Meanwhile, cash-flush Chinese tourists have already replaced westerners as the main pillar of the country’s tourism industry.

From China’s perspective, it has every reason to win over Maldives since the country, thanks to its geographical location, is an indispensable link in Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” chain and a key trading hub along the so-called Maritime Silk Road.

Last year, Maldives concluded a free-trade agreement with China, and officially became a partner in Beijing’s One Belt One Road strategy. In return, the Chinese government has vowed to help Maldives build its first cross-harbor bridge.

As to India, it was basically caught completely off guard by Yameen’s shift towards China, which explains why New Delhi has aligned itself with the anti-Yameen camp since the onset of the ongoing political crisis.

Nevertheless, with China economic backing and the support of the military, Yameen obviously has the upper hand over the opposition, and would still remain firmly in power unless India is willing to risk clashing with China directly and send troops to Maldives to topple him, which is quite unlikely to happen.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 15

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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