Date
21 October 2018
Maldives’ president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (center) may be perceived as having pro-India leanings, but that doesn’t mean he will dismantle China’s economic interests in the island nation. Photo: Reuters
Maldives’ president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (center) may be perceived as having pro-India leanings, but that doesn’t mean he will dismantle China’s economic interests in the island nation. Photo: Reuters

China’s influence in Maldives won’t wane despite election upset

In the Sept. 23 presidential election in Maldives, the opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who was widely regarded as an underdog before the race, pulled off a major upset and defeated the incumbent leader of the tiny South Asian island nation, Abdulla Yameen, by a substantial margin.

As the pro-China Yameen was voted out of office and the pro-India Solih is set to become the new president, it has sparked speculation as to whether Maldives will now once again lean toward New Delhi and even call a halt to the cooperation with Beijing in relation to the Belt and Road program.

In our opinion, Solih’s rise to power will not necessarily spell the end of the pro-China foreign policy line eagerly pursued by Yameen during his reign.

It is because the economic domination of Chinese investors in Maldives has already become so firmly established that the new president can hardly turn back the clock immediately even if he wants to.

Besides, if Beijing offers to provide more “carrots” for Maldives and shower more cash on the country in the days ahead, we don’t see any fundamental reason why president-elect Solih would reject such a juicy deal.

Let’s take the so-called China-Maldives Friendship Bridge which links the capital Malé and the airport island where the country’s main international airport is located as an example.

The cost for the entire project stood at around 1.26 billion yuan.

The project has been financed with US$126 million in grant aid and a concessionary loan from China, together with US$12.6 million from the state budget of Maldives, as the news website Maldives Independent had reported. 

As the bridge has already been opened, on Aug. 30 this year, there is absolutely no way Solih can undo the project.

As a matter of fact, apart from the “friendship bridge”, Beijing has also committed tens of billions of dollars in investment to other infrastructure projects in Maldives, such as the expansion of its main international airport, a new residential area development, and the construction of a new power plant.

Together, China’s various investments in Maldives are now estimated to total some US$1.5 billion, equivalent to 40 percent of the island nation’s GDP.

As such, even if Yameen will be gone soon, it does not mean Chinese investors in Maldives will leave as well.

In the coming weeks, a lot will depend on how the bargaining between Solih and Beijing will play out.

After all, it is solid cash, rather than empty talk, that seals friendships in international politics.

As long as India only pays lip service to its vow of enhancing strategic partnership with the new Maldivian government, rather than do anything really concrete, the influence of China, with its Belt and Road financing plans, will remain unshakable over the tiny nation.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 26

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal

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