A tropical paradise for many tourists, the island nation of Maldives is threatened by a rising sea level, environmental crisis and, now, political disarray. In 5th of February, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Maldives current president, declared a state of emergency for 15 days, in order to prevent the Supreme Court from releasing nine oppositional figures, including the former President Nasheed, thus culling any competition in the coming presidential election. The chief justice, along with a supreme court judge, was arrested shortly later on ‘corruption charges’ and the army was ordered to shut down the Congress. A defacto coup to dodge an imminent impeachment.
Since its independence from Britain, the Republic of Maldives has been ruled by successive dictators. It was until 2008 that the Maldives had elected their first president: Mohamed Nasheed. A career political prisoner, Nasheed narrowly defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose reign had spanned for almost 3 decades. Nasheed’s presidency lasted for 4 years, until he was “forced to resign at gunpoint“. A year later, the vacant throne led to a game-of-throne-esque power struggle between Gayoom and his younger brother, Yammen, with the latter emerge triumphant and the former exiled to India. In the vein of his caesaristic brother, prevalent corruption and brutal suppression once again became Maldives’ core tenets. Facing growing unrest, Yammen toughed up his crackdowns on oppositions and launched bitter campaigns against his political rivals: including the imprisoned Nasheed and his brother-in-exile Gayoom.
So why the spotlight over this particular dynastic feud? Beside being a world-renowned resort, the Maldives has become a wrestling ground for China and India. Located in the heart of the Indian Ocean and a crucial stop for the Asia-Europe routes, it used to be a protectorate of Great Britain, and after decolonization, a de-facto client state of India. In fact, New-Delhi’s approval played a large part in Gayoom and Yammen regime. Nasheed, on the other hand, was on bad terms with New-Delhi for harbouring Indian political dissidents. It was even rumoured that New Delhi had plotted the coup that led to Nasheed’s disposal. During his exile India, however, the ex-president was an outspoken critic of Beijing’s maritime expansionism, repeatedly criticizing China’s “plundering” of the Maldives’ territory. In the vein of being a ‘freedom fighter’, he expressed solidarity with the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong through an open letter and became a prominent eyesore to Beijing.
Although Yameen became the president with the support of India, in this particular crisis, he turned to China, Saudi Arabia and even Pakistan instead of India for help. This political U-Turn is a textbook case of Value-Oriented Diplomacy. With his ever-stifling regime, Yameen has gradually attracted a notoriety from the Western society and grew weary of liberal elements interfering with the internal affairs of the Maldives. In 2016, the island nation withdrew from the British Commonwealth and began to distance itself from India, whom Yameen saw as a part of the ‘democratic bloc’.
At this juncture, Beijing announced its ” Belt and Road Initiative” and marked the Maldives’ strategic prominence on its “Maritime Silk Road Roadmap”. Beijing also sees the Maldives in a different light:
‘While India’s energy and commercial stake in the Maldives are as not as deep as that of China, New-Delhi sees it as its own backyard that bend to its whims,’ commented Ghulam Ali, an associate professor of political science at the Sichuan University of Science & Engineering, ‘China, on the other hand, is not interested in Maldavian politics and generally sees it as a commercial partner.’
With non-interventionism being the axiom of its diplomacy, China became a politically-secure alternative for Yameen. In addition, China has already become the largest source of tourists to the Maldives, making them an economic lifeline of the Maldives. After signing the “China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement” in 2017, the Maldives was officially a member state to the “The Belt and Road Initiative”, with Beijing promising to build the nation’s first sea bridge (characteristically named the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge). Surprised by the Maldives’ intimacy with China, New-Delhi turned to Yameen’s opposition in hopes of him being defeated in the coming presidential election. The recent legal onslaught mounted by Maldivian judges is as always motivated by very real concerns: they were placing their bets on Yameen’s defeat against New Delhi.
However, unless India presses for a military solution, Yameen can easily retain his power gain economic achievements with China’s support, a shiny GDP and a compliant military. However, in case of an imminent military intervention from India, ‘China will most likely make concessions precisely because its interests in the Maldives were mostly commercial,’ commented Prof. Ghulam Ali, ‘China does not want to antagonize India, and containing a rising India is even not on Beijing’s mind when it drafted its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing’s concession to India in Siri-Lanka is a good example.’
Spanning across the whole of Asia, China’s ambitious scheme will only most likely spark more local conflicts on a global scale, but it would be all roar and no paws for Beijing. At the end of the day, China has long ceased to be the hegemony of East Asia and she needs friends to survive in the land of many giants.