As Harsh Pant noted earlier for The Diplomat, a political crisis is underway in the Maldives. President Abdulla Yameen defied an order from the country’s Supreme Court to release members of the opposition from prison; instead, he declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of the chief justice and former president turned opposition ally Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (Yameen’s half brother).
In response, former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed has asked for India to “send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the judges and political detainees.” Yet China, which has close ties to the Yameen government, warned against any outside interference, calling on the international community to respect the Maldives’ sovereignty and not “take actions that may further complicate the situation.”
As Sudha Ramachandran noted in a Diplomat feature, published before the current crisis, Yameen has moved the Maldives further into China’s orbit, mostly notably through the controversial signing of a free trade agreement. According to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), “The government allowed for less than an hour for the entire parliamentary process to approve the 1,000-plus page document.”
Beyond the FTA, the Maldives under Yameen has appeared ready to follow a course similar to that of Sri Lanka under the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa government, eagerly embracing Chinese investment and loans to develop the island country. As a result, Ramachandran explained:
China’s presence, especially in Maldives’ tourism sector and infrastructure building, has expanded. It has replaced Europe as Maldives’ largest source of tourists. China is funding and building mega infrastructure projects, including the Friendship Bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island and a 1,000-apartment housing project on Hulhumale, a suburb built on reclaimed land.
It’s no surprise then that China would not want to see this progress jeopardized by Yameen falling from power. In response to the crisis, Beijing is calling for “dialogue and consultation” to “properly resolve” the situation – without interference from third parties.
“[W]hat is happening inside the Maldives is the internal affairs of the country,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters at a regular press conference on Wednesday. “[…]The international community shall play a constructive role on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of the Maldives, instead of further complicating the situation.”
Geng later added, “[W]e believe that the Maldives government, political parties and people have the wisdom and capability to cope with the current situation on their own.”
When asked by a reporter if support from China was emboldening Yameen to act against his political opponents, Geng simply replied that “China and the Maldives maintain friendly and cooperative relations.”
The Maldives is a top destination for Chinese tourists, but China’s Foreign Ministry has advised Chinese citizens to cancel plans to visit in the near future. With the Spring Festival holiday just over week away, that could mean a lot of aborted trips. Perhaps for that reason, the Chinese public is avidly following the story, with “Maldives state of emergency” the top-trending search term on Sina Weibo on Tuesday.
Chinese media coverage, as usual, has gone beyond diplomatic talking points. An article on People’s Daily’s website hinted that an “invisible hand” – implied to be India – was influencing events in the Maldives. The article noted that the China-Maldives FTA had made India “unhappy” just before pointing out that the world was watching to see if India would intervene in the current crisis.
Predictably, the Global Times, known for its nationalistic furor, was more blunt, running a commentary declaring that India “has no right to meddle” in the Maldives. “The small country of the Maldives has long faced a choice: should it free itself from India’s control and consolidate its independence as a sovereign state or not?” Global Times wrote. According to the article, India is “open” about interfering in the political affairs of small countries in South Asia – including implementing its own version of “color revolutions.” If India does intervene, the Global Times warns, it will not be out of concern for rule of law, but a desire to force the Maldives to come to heel.
The principle of noninterference is China’s hallmark when it comes to foreign policy; Beijing’s insistence that the world stand back and allow the Maldives to handle the situation is in line with its advice in a number of previous political crises, from Zimbabwe’s recent coup to the early days of the Syrian civil war. Yet the geopolitical background at play in the Maldives, where China has gained a solid foothold in one of India’s oceanic neighbors, makes China’s warning in this case even more pointed.