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India-China Contest Looms Over Maldives’ Presidential Elections

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India-China Contest Looms Over Maldives’ Presidential Elections

While Muizzu’s victory could see a tilt toward China in the archipelago’s foreign policy, India and its Quad partners will cheer President Solih’s re-election.

India-China Contest Looms Over Maldives’ Presidential Elections

Aerial view of the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which links the islands of Male, Hulhule and Hulhumale in the Maldives.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Panda51

The Maldives’ presidential election is set to take place on September 9. Currently, the election is shaping up to be a competitive race, pitting incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih against seven challengers: Mayor of Malé, Mohamed Muizzu, of the Progressive Alliance, consisting of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM); Member of Parliament Qasim Ibrahim, leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP); Member of Parliament Ilyas Labeeb, representing the Democrats; former Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim of the Maldives National Party (MNP);  and three independents — Faris Maumoon, Umar Naseer, and Hassan Zameel.

While local dynamics unfold, the election also bears significant international implications. The Maldives straddles vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and is courted by external competing powers, most prominently India and China. India’s interest stems from the Maldives’ proximity, and China’s because of the Maldives’ strategic maritime location adjacent to routes used for China’s energy supplies and the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The last Maldivian election in September 2018 was widely seen as a victory for India and a setback for China. Under the previous administration led by the PPM’s Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives moved closer to China, participating in the BRI, pursuing mega projects like the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, and attempting to enter into a free trade agreement with China. Contrastingly, the present Solih administration remains aligned with India, honoring an “India First” foreign policy that complements India’s “Neighborhood First” approach.

The Solih administration, while not identifying as anti-China, maintains cordial yet cautious bilateral engagement with Beijing. This caution acknowledges New Delhi’s fears about China’s potential goals, particularly the suspicion that China might be using its economic influence to ensnare India’s neighbors in “debt traps,” thus gaining leverage to create a “string of pearls” comprising military bases around the Indian subcontinent. The controversial lease of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port to Beijing is often cited as a case in point.

In light of these concerns, the Solih government is reluctant to commit to a free trade agreement with China, which was passed but never ratified under the Yameen administration. As another example, the Solih administration declined to participate in the China-Indian Ocean Forum on Development Cooperation held in November 2022, which was aimed at promoting Xi Jinping’s new Global Development Initiative. Maldives’ non-participation was poorly received by China.

Yameen, meanwhile, had staked his political comeback on an “India Out” campaign, which protests the present administration’s alleged subordination to India. Although he received his party’s nomination last August, an 11-year prison sentence for money laundering charges prevents him from contesting the election. Mayor Muizzu, representing the PNC portion of the PPM-PNC coalition, was selected as an alternate candidate and has subsequently received Yameen’s begrudging endorsement.

Currently, the MDP and the PPM-PNC coalition represent the country’s two largest political factions, with Solih himself asserting that he will not concentrate his efforts on other parties. Consequently, it is highly plausible that the election, which might proceed to a runoff on September 30, will primarily be a contest between the PPM-PNC and MDP — though other parties could still play significant kingmaker roles.

Thus, the Maldives faces two distinct paths with respect to foreign policy, depending on the election’s outcome. Should an MDP government remain in power, the country is likely to continue solidifying ties with India, while keeping cordial but guarded relations with China. Solih’s re-election would also favor the interests of India’s ‘quad’ partners: Japan, the United States, and Australia, all broadly focused on containing China’s maritime aspirations across the Indo-Pacific. Of note, Canberra and Washington have recently opened resident embassies in the Maldives, reflecting their broader efforts to enhance engagement in the Indian Ocean Region, partly in response to China’s growing presence.

Conversely, if Muizzu, who positions himself as a continuation of the Yameen administration, assumes control, the Maldives will likely tilt more toward Beijing once again. Under a Muizzu administration, the Maldives might finalize the free trade agreement with China that Yameen had pursued and possibly prioritize Beijing over New Delhi as a development partner.

While for these reasons a Muizzu victory would not be ideal for India, there is an important nuance to bear in mind. It is improbable that any Maldivian administration would risk complete isolation from India once in power. Since India is the Maldives’ largest and most influential neighbor and a long-standing provider of economic and security support, maintaining good relations with India is always essential—a fact not lost on the Progressive Alliance.

Even under Yameen, the government officially followed an “India First” policy, and much of what PPM-PNC protests now, such as the Uthuru Thilfalhu dockyard (constructed with Indian support and alleged by the Progressive Alliance to double as a military base) are projects that proceeded under agreements signed during Yameen’s tenure. This suggests that “India Out” rhetoric is more a political tactic than a sincere stance. Yet, such grandstanding could still leave a negative imprint on Maldives-India relations, even if the PPM-PNC moderate their position should they secure the presidency.

Neither China nor India have been passively waiting for the election’s outcome. Both have been actively engaging with the Maldives in the lead-up. In January 2022, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the Maldives as part of an Indian Ocean tour. That year China’s embassy also hosted festive celebrations on the occasion of the half-centennial of diplomatic relations between the Maldives and China, which were established in 1972.

India, meanwhile, has been actively promoting its ongoing infrastructure projects in the Maldives, including the signature Greater Malé Connectivity Project aimed at linking all of the islands in the Greater Malé region. Further, India has been accelerating and enhancing high-profile visits to the Maldives, with its Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visiting recently and discussing enhancing regional bilateral cooperation.

As relations between India and China continue to be tense over land border disputes and regional competition, both nations will keenly follow the Maldives’ presidential elections, eager to see how the outcome will shape the country’s political future and their influence in it. That future, however, will ultimately be decided by the Maldivian people at the ballot box.