How the Maldives elections will shape Indian Ocean geopolitics - Hindustan Times

How the Maldives elections will shape Indian Ocean geopolitics

ByHindustan Times
Oct 05, 2023 01:48 PM IST

Authored by - Sankalp Gurjar, assistant professor, department of geopolitics and international relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE)

As the India-China rivalry is played out across the Indian Ocean region, domestic politics is becoming a key focal point of geopolitics. The recent elections in the Maldives were watched across the region not only for domestic politics but also for their likely wider regional impact. What will the foreign policy of the new government be? Will the new government maintain a pro-India orientation or will China make a comeback? How will the policies of the new government influence the course of strategic rivalries in the Indian Ocean? These questions are at the heart of the evolving strategic landscape in the context of the Maldivian elections.

Maldive Elections
Maldive Elections

In the last decade, as China’s naval presence has grown across the Indian Ocean, the region has become a centerpiece of strategic rivalry between India and China. The question of China’s growing military and economic presence and its strategic rivalry with India is probably at its most intense in the smaller island States of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives’s strategic location astride the strategic sea lanes that connect East Asia with West Asia increases its importance. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and Indian Ocean strategy meet in the Maldives. The archipelagic country with 1,200-islands is critical for securing India’s maritime interests in the Indian Ocean.

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The Maldives has been embroiled in the major power rivalry since president Mohammed Nasheed was forced to resign in 2012. The subsequent Maldivian governments especially the one led by Abdullah Yameen (2013-18) took a sharply pro-China turn in its foreign policy and sought to curtail India’s influence. During his time, the Maldives became part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The pro-China turn in Maldivian foreign policy occurred at the same time when China was expanding its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. During this phase, on account of infrastructure projects, Maldives became saddled with expensive Chinese loans. As per some estimates, Maldives owe China as much as $ 3.1 billion whereas the Maldivian Gross Domestic Product stood at $ 4.9 billion. Such a high-level of debt has put the Maldives in danger of falling into China’s debt-trap.

However, during the 2018 elections, the tide was reversed and Ibrahim Solih was elected as president. His reign was marked by the staunchly pro-India foreign policy orientation. India seemed to have regained the lost influence in the strategically located island State. Since 2018, India has provided significant assistance in the domain of development, security, and infrastructure. Besides, demonstrating a clear intent of favouring the Quad countries over China, Maldives has signed a defence co-operation agreement with the United States and Australia recently opened its embassy in Male. In July 2023, the Japanese foreign minister too paid a visit to Maldives to strengthen ties.

The recent election results and the victory of pro-China candidate Mohamed Muizzu, who was the mayor of Male, is being seen as a significant development that has the potential to influence the Indian Ocean geopolitics. The president-elect has said that foreign military forces cannot stay in the Maldives. He had run his campaign on the agenda of “India Out”. The geographic reality will ensure that the Maldives cannot ignore India’s core security concerns. In fact, Maldives needed India’s immediate assistance even when president Yameen was engaging China. India’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities are unmatched in the region.

However, if he decides to send back India’s military training teams from the Maldives, it will be the second time that India will have faced the pressures of domestic politics in an Indian Ocean State. In 2018, on account of the intense disapproval from the Seychelles’ opposition political parties, the government was forced to shelve plans to develop an airstrip and naval jetty on the Assumption Island.

The strategic location of Assumption between Tanzania and Mozambique would have increased India’s capabilities to monitor the southwest Indian Ocean. So far, there seems to be no forward movement on the Assumption deal signed between India and Seychelles. The Maldives will have to decide for itself whether it is prudent to send Indian training teams back. Despite the apparent closeness between China and Sri Lanka, ultimately, it was India’s strong support that helped Colombo tide over the acute financial difficulties. For India, the Maldives once again demonstrates the imperative of engaging with the ruling as well as opposition leadership in the important countries of the Indian Ocean region.

Overall, as the elections in Maldives demonstrate, domestic politics of the Indian Ocean countries has emerged as one of the key battlegrounds for the strategic competition between China and India. Both sides are watching out for opportunities to see whether the strategic preferences of smaller countries can be influenced in any way. India’s pivotal position in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, sharpening rivalry with China and deepening ties with the US are key factors that shape the regional geopolitics. In this matrix, now, domestic political preferences of smaller island countries will also have to be added.

Authored by - Sankalp Gurjar, assistant professor, department of geopolitics and international relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE)

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