China's steady expansion into South Asia and the Indian Ocean is posing a profound strategic challenge for India, the region's traditional hegemon. Elections in the island nations of the Indian Ocean thus provide an important juncture for New Delhi and Beijing to tilt local politics in their favor. The Sino-Indian competition means the Indian Ocean will increasingly become a field of competition for both countries.
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih pulled off a general election stunner in the Maldives, handily unseating incumbent President Yameen Abdul Gayoom in balloting held Sept. 23. Solih's victory, however, didn't just deny Yameen another five-year term, but it also has the potential to shift the power balance between India and China amid their intensifying rivalry in the Indian Ocean. In the end, Solih overcame alleged vote-rigging and other concerns over the election's transparency to win the contest, which attracted nearly 90 percent of the country's 262,000 eligible voters, by a reported 16 points.
Why It Matters
Solih's victory is good news for India, particularly as the president-elect has called for an improvement in his country's strained relations with New Delhi. As a strategically significant chain of 1,200 islands located near key Indian Ocean shipping routes, the Maldives has historically fallen within India's sphere of influence. But the country's steady drift toward China under Yameen – who in December 2017 signed a free trade agreement, the Maldives' first such deal ever, with Chinese President Xi Jinping – unsettled India, especially as New Delhi has been struggling to compete with the influx of Chinese capital flooding South Asia under Beijing's vast Belt and Road Initiative. Solih's victory, accordingly, offers the chance for a course correction.
The relationship between India and the Maldives took a hit in February after Yameen imposed a state of emergency to thwart a purported judicial coup after the Maldivian Supreme Court overturned charges against nine political prisoners. One of the accused, exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, favored better relations with India. In fact, Nasheed even urged India to deploy troops to the archipelago to restore democracy after Yameen declared the state of emergency. India, however, refused to heed Nasheed's call, calling instead for the restoration of democracy.
What Happens Next
Solih will be sworn in Nov. 17, but going forward, two key questions are likely to shape the situation in the Maldives. First, will Solih make any meaningful adjustments to Chinese investments and loans in the country? China's $1.3 billion in loans to the Maldives are equivalent to over a third of the country's $3.5 billion economy. The magnitude of such numbers points to a hot-button issue that has become a topic of debate across South Asia and Southeast Asia – namely China's "creditor imperialism," in which Beijing stands accused of imposing unsustainable debt burdens upon the region's emerging market economies.
Second, what does Solih's victory mean for India? Although New Delhi is jubilant about the outcome, Solih may struggle to reverse Yameen's tilt toward China if the example of neighboring Sri Lanka, another strategically significant island indebted to China, offers any insight. Current President Maithripala Sirisena had criticized his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for saddling Colombo with unfavorable loans. But once in office, it was Sirisena who signed away the country's Hambantota port to China Merchants Port Holdings for a 99-year lease in exchange for $1.1 billion in debt relief. Given such a precedent, it seems that the Maldives won't be able to reverse course as quickly as India – or the country's incoming president – hopes.