‘Music to Beijing’s ears’: Has China won the Maldives presidency?

Mohamed Muizzu’s election win is a setback for India, a boost for China and a sign of tensions in the Indian Ocean region, say analysts.

Members of Elections Commission empty a ballot box to count the ballots during the second round of a presidential election in Male
Mohamed Muizzu, a pro-China candidate, emerged victorious in the recent presidential run-off held on Saturday in the Maldives [Dhahau Naseem/Reuters]

The Maldives has a population of half a million people scattered across more than 1,000 islands. But last weekend, the picturesque archipelago delivered an electoral verdict that has sent shock waves around the world — and especially across the Indian Ocean region.

Mohamed Muizzu, the opposition candidate, emerged victorious in the presidential run-off on Saturday and secured 54 percent of the vote, results released by the electoral commission showed.

Muizzu, who backs closer ties between the Maldives and China, defeated the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who is widely perceived as pro-India.

“With today’s result, we have got the opportunity to build the country’s future,” Muizzu said in a statement after his victory. “The strength to ensure the freedom of Maldives.”

The vote transformed into a de facto referendum over the country’s ties with India and China.

India has 75 military personnel stationed in the Maldives. New Delhi says they are there to maintain and operate two helicopters and an aircraft it donated to the country. Throughout his election campaign, Muizzu pledged to remove those troops from the Maldives.

“Seen from the zero-sum lens that often drives great power competition, Beijing is a big winner from this election,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia director at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Muizzu’s campaign plank was not only about strengthening ties with Beijing, it was also about aiming to undermine India by calling for an end to any Indian military presence in Maldives. This is music to the ears of Beijing,” he added.

To be sure, India will look to retain as much of its influence in the Maldives as it can, say analysts.

Following the announcement of Muizzu’s victory, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his congratulations to the president-elect.

“India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region,” Modi said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

New Delhi has enjoyed cosy ties with Male under President Solih, who took office following a landslide victory in 2018 against Muizzu’s mentor, former President Abdulla Yameen.

India poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the tourist hot spot. New Delhi also financed infrastructure projects, both big and small, in the country.

“India will support the new democratically elected government and will seek to work closely with it,” Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury, author of The China Factor: Beijing’s Expanding Engagement in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, told Al Jazeera.

The Modi government, he said, is “likely to continue its pursuit of the Greater Male Connectivity Projects” — a 6.7km (4-mile) road project currently under construction that aims to link the capital, Male, with the island of Villingili. India has given the Maldives a $100m grant and a $400m line of credit for the infrastructure initiative.

But the road ahead won’t be easy for New Delhi, said Roy-Chaudhury. “Given the new government’s pro-China outlook, the future of Indian influence and development projects hangs in the balance,” he said.

Muizzu, a 45-year-old civil engineer by training, has taken aim at the imbalanced trade relationship between the Maldives and India, promising to fix it.

But while trade between the South Asian neighbours is heavily skewed towards India — as is often the case between a giant economy and a smaller one — the Maldives fares little better when it comes to China.

India’s exports to the Maldives amounted to $416m in 2021, while it imported $49m from the smaller nation. China, meanwhile, exported goods worth $395m to the Maldives, and its imports were valued at $3.9m.

Muizzu emerged as an unexpected candidate to lead the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), after serving as the construction minister in the administration of Yameen. A path to the country’s top seat opened up for him after Yameen, also a pro-China leader, was put behind bars on corruption charges.

Under Yameen, the Maldives obtained more than $1bn in loans from China to finance huge infrastructure projects, including housing for residents of land-scarce Male and a first-of-its-kind bridge connecting the congested capital to nearby suburb and airport islands.

Analysts say the change of guard in Male could present an opportunity for not just Beijing but also Chinese investors.

“Beijing will certainly try to move in, though I wouldn’t overstate the impact of the election on its investment patterns,” Kugelman said.

“Even in the era of Solih, who was pro-India but not hostile to China, we saw some continued Chinese commercial collaborations with the Maldives – not on the level we saw during the Yameen era, but still substantive activity. Certainly, though, Muizzi’s victory will be empowering, for Chinese investors as well as Chinese grand strategists and diplomats.”

Kugelman said the election results might be a “body blow” to India, both diplomatically and geopolitically, but New Delhi will not throw in the towel.

“By no means is New Delhi planning to raise the red flag and effectively cede the Maldives to China. That would fly in the face of its intense competition with Beijing,” he said. “New Delhi will remain confident it can continue to have some degree of partnership with Male.”

As Muizzu prepares to take office on November 17, Roy-Chaudhury said the new leader of the Maldives might not be able to abandon New Delhi completely and pivot towards Beijing even if he wanted to.

India, he said, would continue to emphasise its developmental aid and seek to build on it.

“India and the Maldives both need each other.”

Source: Al Jazeera