At the end of September 2018, the Maldives, a small islands state, linking through the sea lanes East Asia to the Middle East, played a key role in the geostrategic games taking place in the Indian Ocean. The reason was the presidential election held in the Maldives on September 23, 2018, as a result of which Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the election in the race against incumbent president Abdulla Yameen, who was seeking re-election for a second five-year term. As the Indian Ocean region is famous for its geostrategic rivalry between the United States and China in the West Pacific, as well as China and India in the Indian Ocean, geopolitical preferences of small island states play a crucial role in balancing the interests and influence of world powers. Therefore, the results of the election in the Maldives were seen as an indicator of the turning point in China’s position in the Indian Ocean.
For the Maldives, the outcome of the recent election meant a victory of the democratic forces and pro-Indian candidate Mr. Solih. It is also considered as a strategic victory of India that questions Chinese initiatives in the region. Delhi’s main concerns are around the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects that were widely supported by President Abdulla Yameen. During his presidency, the Maldives had cordial relations with China and welcomed numerous infrastructure projects by signing a memorandum of understanding in 2014, which brought the Maldives into the Maritime Silk Road component of the BRI, as well as a free trade agreement in December 2017. In addition, economic relations boomed with Chinese investments that supported a number of large-scale projects, including the 2-km long bridge to connect the country’s major airport to the capital city and several long-term leases on small Maldivian islands [Financial Times, 2018]. Now there is a concern in Beijing that similar to Malaysia, where the pro-Chinese government was ousted during the last election, the newly elected leader of the Maldives would initiate an intensified scrutiny of Chinese investments.
However, for the new administration, it might be difficult to deviate even from unfavorable commitments of the ongoing projects, as the Chinese investments and loans constitute approximately 80% of the Maldives’ total debt [Financial Times, 2018]. Consequently, taking into account this financial burden of the country that relies heavily on tourism, China will likely remain an influential player in the Maldives.
At the same time, for India, the pro-Indian leader may give an opportunity to re-establish the Indian influence in the Maldives and counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. India traditionally had good ties with the Maldives but they became strained due to recent speculations about China building a military port in the Maldives that would impinge India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. Both China and India have long been competing for the influence in the Maldives, with China taking the lead in the last four years. On the contrary, the newly elected president declared shortly after the election that India is a “closest ally” in the region. For India, the Maldives is within the regional sphere of influence due to its geographic proximity, economic, security and political connections, therefore India is highly interested in counter-balancing Chinese initiatives both in this island state and the region [Nikkei Asian Review, 2018].
For the United States, which also has concerns with the growing influence of China in the Indian Ocean, the election result may have implications of its regional strategy. The Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy from December 2017 stated: “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region” [Congressional Research Service, 2018]. Hence, as Washington has an established role in the Indian Ocean, its approach to influencing Chinese and Indian interests in the Indian Ocean region might play a significant role.
So, the question arises why major powers as China, India, and the United States are closely engaged in the internal politics of a tiny island with a population of little more than 400 000 people. Moreover, why do they need to be present in the Indian Ocean? There are several points that explain their interest.
Firstly, the rivalry to influence small nations is driven by Chinese initiatives in the region and the reactions of India and the United States toward them. The competition is largely underpinned in seaborne trade and energy routes. The Indian Ocean region is strategically important due to its transportation routes that account for more than 80% of the world’s seaborne oil and trade transit, in addition to the deployment of substantial military forces. Thus, for China, the primary objective in the Indian Ocean is to protect trade and oil transportation routes. Being dependent on the Middle Eastern oil, China is interested in securing its ships carrying oil from the Gulf States. Therefore, China attempts to minimize its vulnerabilities through the BRI projects, by expanding its trade and energy routes, while enhancing its political influence in the Indian Ocean region. On the other hand, India that strives for playing a central role in the Indian Ocean diplomacy, through the naval force establishment, trade and infrastructure development, is also deeply involved in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. Whereas, the United States’ interest in the Indian Ocean, declared in its Indo-Pacific strategy, is in controlling the Strait of Malacca that it could block in case of an escalation of the South China Sea disputes or an outright war with China over Taiwan [Forbes, 2018].
Secondly, the security implications of Chinese ports in the Indian Ocean worry regional powers. China’s overseas facilities based in Djibouti, Somalia, and Pakistani Gwadar are seen as Chinese outposts, in addition to the facilities in Karachi and the Seychelles that are already utilized by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) for replenishment and refueling. Although China promotes infrastructure and trade development, these ports could potentially be of dual, civil and military, use [Forbes, 2018]. Other regional powers assume that the presence of the PLAN in the Indian Ocean will continue to grow and are therefore interested in controlling the Chinese influence in the region.
Thus, the island nations of the Indian Ocean region have an immense strategic importance due to their location close to the sea lanes that link the energy-rich Middle East with dynamically growing East Asia, as well as security implications of the above-mentioned Chinese seaports. To ensure maritime security and economic advantage in the region, major powers are competing to influence small island states, which include, besides the Maldives, the islands of Socotra (Yemen), Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. The proximity to sea lines of communication that allows controlling maritime transit of traded goods is the main advantage of the island states of the Indian Ocean. For those island states, a strategy of hedging between major powers and enhancing cooperation with the United States, India, Japan, and Australia is an opportunity to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region. In this context, for the Maldives, the results of the recent election present an opportunity to benefit politically and economically from regional geopolitical games.
Congressional Research Service. (2018). China-India Great Power Competition in the Indian Ocean Region: Issues for Congress. Retrieved from https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R45194.html#_Toc514078489. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Financial Times. (2018). Advantage India in struggle with China over Maldives. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/24b0bb54-c22d-11e8-95b1-d36dfef1b89a. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Nikkei Asian Review. (2018). Maldives election marks setback for China’s Belt and Road. Retrieved from https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Belt-and-Road/Maldives-election-marks-setback-for-China-s-Belt-and-Road2 . Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Forbes. (2018). What’s China Doing In The Indian Ocean? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/panosmourdoukoutas/2018/04/01/whats-china-doing-in-the-indian-ocean/#10721f443633 . Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr. Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow at the Eurasian Research Institute of Akhmet Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. During her studies, Albina received fellowships from institutions in China, India, the USA, the UK, Germany, and Switzerland. Her primary research interests cover Central, East, and South Asian affairs; intraregional and interregional cooperation of Central Asian states; China-India relations; and Central Asian politics.