Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s loss to Mohamed Muizzu has again titled the scales in Beijing’s favour as the Maldivian presidential election was also seen as a referendum on the competition between India and China for influence in the Maldives
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the longest-serving Maldivian ruler, was virtually left defenseless in the absence of an army or navy when dozens of Opposition-backed mercenaries descended on the capital Male, and attacked his palace in November 1988. A handful of guards engaged the attackers attempting to oust him and allowed Gayoom to seek India’s help. The attackers proved no match to the 1,600 paratroopers India promptly dispatched to the Maldives and helped save the day by frustrating the coup attempt.
Gayoom would extend his 10-year rule by 20 more years before Mohamed Nasheed replaced him in 2008 after the country’s first multi-party elections ended authoritarianism following a protracted struggle for democracy. Nasheed championed closer ties with New Delhi amid China’s aggressive development of a string of facilities around India’s periphery. Two years after Nasheed took over, the Maldives granted its biggest foreign investment project worth $511 million to Indian firm GMR Group to develop the Male International Airport.
The India-Maldives ties would soon nosedive following Nasheed’s ouster in 2012. It was perhaps no coincidence that the airport deal was canceled the same year and the GMR Group was given just seven days to leave the Indian Ocean archipelago. The cancellation worsened the strained ties as India vowed to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of its interests and its nationals in the Maldives.
Nasheed continued his pro-India stance by opposing the cancellation of the GMR contract saying it would deter potential investors for decades. He accused his successor, Mohamed Waheed, of leading the Maldives down a path to economic ruin. Nasheed chose the Indian High Commission for refuge before his arrest in 2013 for ‘illegally’ ordering a judge’s arrest during his rule as China consolidated its position in the Maldives.
New Delhi and Beijing would continue to jockey for influence in the Maldives, which straddles the major sea lanes of the Indian Ocean where about 97% of Indian trade by volume and 75% by value passes through. India was earlier seen to have frittered its advantage when the Maldives emerged as a potential pearl in China’s facilities around its periphery.
China began to invest significantly in the Maldives even as it was not on its radar until around a decade and a half back. It became the only non-South Asian country to have an embassy in the archipelago of around 400,000 in 2010. The embassy was opened days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian head of the government to visit the Maldives in November of that year.
China’s nearly $64 million trade with the Maldives in 2010 was up 56% compared to the previous year. India’s trade declined with the Maldives from Rs 608.21 crore in 2008-09 to 395.57 crore in 2009-10 as Beijing also began to invest in the Maldivian infrastructure. A Chinese company constructed 1,000 houses in the country with the help of preferential loans. China built the Maldivian foreign ministry and national museum buildings in Male in July 2010. Direct charter and commercial flights were also launched between China and the Maldives in the same year.
A year later, Wu Bangguo, the standing committee chairman of the National People’s Congress (national legislature), became the first top Chinese official to visit the Maldives in May 2011. In May 2010, Nasheed visited Beijing as part of a series of high-level exchanges and secured an aid of $8 million. Maldives Today, a current affairs portal, cited an unconfirmed report in November 2010, saying China secured a military base on the Maldivian Marao Island with the capacity to deploy nuclear submarines.
China had reportedly coaxed Gayoom to let it establish the base with Pakistan’s help. Indonesian newspaper Jakarta Post quoted an unmanned official as saying that a Pakistani delegation visited the Maldives in February 2001 and pressurized Male to ‘facilitate Chinese plans for a naval base’ using ‘the Islamic card’ at China’s behest. There was no independent confirmation of the base. But China’s port projects around India in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka were seen as part of Beijing’s ‘policy to choke India.’
Nasheed’s rule, nevertheless, marked a friendlier shift towards India. He chose India for his first overseas visit and allowed it to deploy coastal radars, and patrol its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. An Indian company was also allowed to refurbish an airbase to host Indian reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. The policy shift was also seen as part of a strategy that countries have adopted to benefit from competitive India-China assistance. Smaller states have often played the China card and the Maldives also benefited from the competition.
India and the Maldives signed a framework agreement for cooperation during Prime Minister Singh’s November 2010 visit. India extended assistance worth $140 million to the Maldives and backed Male’s candidature for the UNSC non-permanent seat (2019-20). Indian private sector companies also pledged investments worth $ 1 billion amid growing concern about the impact of the competition between China and India for influence in the Maldives.
Maldives Today articulated the concerns when it noted on November 26, 2011, that the Indian influence in the Indian Ocean grew bigger when GMR took over Male International Airport. It added many suspected it to be a part of a broader Indian policy to control the Indian Ocean. Nasheed was seen as key to securing India’s interests in the region. GMR’s development of the Male airport was seen as a part of New Delhi’s growing clout.
A Chinese company was given the airport contract following Nasheed’s removal. The India-Maldives ties remained in the doldrums as Nasheed’s life and politics seesawed following his ouster in 2012. Nasheed managed to have his disqualification overturned even as he lost the subsequent presidential election. He was ineligible for the 2018 election due to a prison sentence but bounced back to become the speaker of the Parliament while helping his friend Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s election as the President.
Solih picked up the threads of forging closer ties with India. His defeat in the Maldivian presidential election on September 30, 2023, in a race seen as much as a referendum on the competition between India and China for influence in the Maldives has again titled the scales in Beijing’s favour. Mohamed Muizzu, 45, the president-elect and Malé mayor, has backed stronger ties with China. Following a voter turnout of over 85%, Mohamed Muizzu said the people have spoken loud and clear. He underlined that they wish for prosperity and ‘guaranteed sovereignty for the country’.
Mohamed Muizzu, who has a PhD in civil engineering from the United Kingdom, earlier worked for closer ties with China when he served as a minister in Solih’s predecessor Abdulla Yameen’s government. His People’s National Congress is part of the main opposition coalition, which made the Solih government’s close ties with India its main poll issue in the election. The coalition campaigned against the move to allow a contingent of Indian military personnel with slogans such as ‘India Out’ as the poll race intensified.
Solih maintained the contingent was in the Maldives to build a dockyard and that the country’s sovereignty had not been violated. He, however, sought closer ties and investment from India apart from aid. Solih got 39% while Mohamed Muizzu 46% of votes in the initial round of voting warranting the runoff. The split in his Maldivian Democratic Party hurt Solih’s prospects of retaining power. Nasheed parted ways with his friend Solih before the election. He felt increasingly marginalized and formed his own party despite helping Solih become the president in 2018.
The presidential candidate of Nasheed’s party managed to get 7% of the vote but refrained from supporting either candidate in the runoff even as he could have emerged as a potential kingmaker and helped retain India’s influence as New Delhi and Beijing hung heavily among the poll issues. India had begun to assert more in the region even as it was earlier disadvantaged thanks to China’s bigger resources and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) envisaging a network of railroads, ports, and highways across Asia, Africa, and Europe.
New Delhi expanded its presence in the Maldives after Solih replaced pro-China Abdulla Yameen as the president even as the growing anger over the perceived loss of sovereignty to India swelled support for Mohamed Muizzu. Solih opted for the ‘India First’ policy while the Opposition coalition has supported Chinese loans and investment projects.
Mohamed Shareef, an official from Mohamed Muizzu’s party, called his win a reflection of the patriotism of their people and a call on all neighbours and partners to respect their independence and sovereignty. Mohamed Muizzu played a key role in a development programme bankrolled in part under the BRI when he was the housing minister. He last year told Chinese Communist Party officials that they would script a further chapter of strong bilateral if voted to power.
Mohamed Muizzu’s mentor, Abdulla Yameen who is serving an 11-year prison term for corruption and money laundering, developed closer ties with China and made the Maldives a part of BRI before losing power in 2018. Mohamed Muizzu attacked Solih for allowing India’s unchecked presence and promised to remove Indian troops and balance the country’s trade relations that were heavily in India’s favour.