The turbulent political developments of the Maldives now, more than ever, have proven twofold: manifesting in both local political power-plays, and larger geopolitical conflict. This year alone, the Maldives has undergone turbulent political developments— including a state of emergency announced in February under the current Abdulla Yameen presidency, and the recent return of the opposition to political power. Yameen now aligns himself with China through economic cooperation and alleged selling Maldivian islands to the Chinese government, and hence has attracted scrutiny from India, as well as the international community. With the China-India contest for regional hegemony unfolding on Maldivian territory and the internal fragmentation of the country, the Maldives remains a hotbed of political activity.
A Local Power-Play:
The state of emergency announced in February 2018 demonstrated Yameen’s total monopoly on power, as he called for a lockdown on the government after the Supreme Court overturned several criminal allegations against his opponents. Further arrests were made against former President Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother, as well as two Supreme Court judges and a top judicial administrator on the grounds of attempting to overthrow Yameen’s government. This political turmoil ties into the larger power dynamic existing between the Maldivian Progressive Party, represented now by Yameen, and the former Democratic Party, founded by Mohamed Nasheed. The party dynamics of the country, as well as the monopoly on power held by elected leaders, now frames the local and geopolitical tumult of the Maldives.
The socio-political turmoil faced by the Maldives took a decisive turn in 2008 upon the election of Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected President of the country. Nasheed’s election marked the end of Maumoon Abdulla Gayoom’s regime, which had held a monopoly on political power for 30 years. Under Nasheed’s presidency, the Maldives experienced a wave of progressive governance, particularly through Nasheed’s committed efforts to address climate change. However, this progressive feat was short-lived, after his resignation as President under contentious circumstances – now largely considered to have been a result of extreme coercion. Further, Nasheed’s imprisonment in 2015 on the grounds of arresting Criminal Court judge Abdulla Mohamed received widespread international criticism as a politically motivated, unjust arrest.
The Yameen regime is plagued by claims of corruption and malpractice, and is seen to symbolize regression in Maldivian politics. Further convoluting the conflict is the fact that Yameen’s half brother is former President Abdul Gayoom, potentially signifying a return to a monopoly on political power. In this regard, the regime appears to stand in contention with the former Nasheed presidency in almost every way, be it through Yameen’s conservative rationale versus Nasheed’s progressivism, or Yameen’s numerous corruption allegations versus Nasheed’s firm anti-corruption front. However, this dynamic extends to foreign policy, as Yameen moves closer to fortifying relations with the Chinese, whilst the opposition has historically called upon and continues to hope for Indian intervention in the Maldives.
A Geopolitical Power-Play:
Upon the announcement of a state of emergency in the Maldives, a Chinese naval combat force entered the Indian ocean for the first time in four years, serving as a bold move in the geopolitical “chess match” between Asia’s two largest regional powers: India and China. The internal politics of the Maldives frame this larger geopolitical power-struggle, as the Progressive Party aligns with China, whilst the opposition remains skeptical of increased foreign investment.
India aims to maintain its superiority in the Indian Ocean region, and largely values itself as a peacekeeper and the primary power of South Asia. Historically, in 1988 the Indian Army intervened on behalf of the Maldivian president to combat a domestic coup. Hence, India’s ties with the Maldives surpass economic relations; the relationship extends to cultural, historical and regional interdependence. Further, it is important to note that “India’s bilateral and financial assistance of the Maldives has been reciprocated through a self-proclaimed ‘India First’ policy by the nation.” Upon the announcement of the state of emergency this year, former president Nasheed turned to this “India First” policy by appealing to India for intervention in the crisis.
The Maldivian “India First” policy is now precariously positioned, due to President Yameen’s pro-China orientation. Yameen instead appears to be using the Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian ocean to play China and India against one another.
China’s economic ascent almost appears to be form of neo-imperialism, as the nation expands its global presence through foreign investment. However, China maintains its stance that there are no political strings attached to its increased presence in the Maldives, and it dismisses claims of buying Maldivian islands. Instead, China expands its presence through the “Belt and Road Initiative,” launched by the Chinese government as a developmental measure for infrastructure and connectivity, which pertains to the Maldives in particular. With the current threat of climate change, infrastructural development and reclamation of land have become top priorities of the Maldivian government. China’s fortification of relations with nations through infrastructural projects, and expertise in land reclamation as seen in the South China Sea and neighboring South Asian countries, provides a particularly appealing case for Maldivian cooperation.
The infrastructural developments in the Maldives remain transparent and visible, particularly through the opening of the Sinamale Bridge on September 22nd of this year. The bridge is named the “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge,” and signifies the now-fortified relations between the two countries. However, the development of the Sinamale Bridge also ties into the geopolitical contest between India and China, with the idea of the bridge being originally pioneered by an Indian company that had been entrusted with a project to expand Male’s airport. The project was eventually lost by the Indian company and bought over by the Chinese, who then went on to construct Sinamale Bridge.
September 23rd, 2018 ushered in a new era for Maldivian politics, with the landmark win of the Maldivian opposition presidential candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Solih’s win represents a hopeful return to the democracy promised by Nasheed and his party in 2008, but equally, foreshadows the threat of future power struggles as the progressive party will clamor for its return. The Maldives now looks toward a promising future of transparent local politics, yet whether this will translate to foreign relations with China and India remains up to President Solih’s discernment of geopolitical power plays.
Featured Image Source: Van Oord Maritime Ingenuity