On September 30, Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and the opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu will face off in a run-off election for the island country. The island nation is the last location you would anticipate a global conflict to take place because of its gorgeous beaches, coral reefs, and rich marine life.
India and China are also on the ballot, though. Both nations are making an effort to increase their influence on the strategically important islands that span congested east-west shipping channels.
Each of the two presidential candidates stands for a different Asian power and has been travelling the islands by planes and boats to canvass voters.
After his unexpected victory in 2018, Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) improved ties with India, a country with whom Malé has close cultural and economic links. Muizzu of the coalition’s Progressive Alliance is in favour of improved ties with China.
India has historically exerted influence over the Maldives. Delhi can profit from keeping an eye on a crucial area of the Indian Ocean if it has a presence there. Maldives is made up of around 1,200 coral islands and atolls in the centre of the Indian Ocean.
India seeks to prevent China from having access to such a key strategic region because of China’s fast growing naval capabilities. Beijing is likewise eager to safeguard its Gulf-based oil supplies that travel along that path.
The Maldives have received grants and loans totalling hundreds of millions of dollars from both Beijing and Delhi for infrastructure and development projects.
Controversy over relations with India
But it appears like China has the advantage in this election. Only 39% of the votes cast in the first round of elections, which took place earlier this month, went to Solih.
Criticism that the present government has developed tight connections with Delhi at the expense of China – known as the “India-first” strategy – is one problem that may have affected the current president’s performance.
However, Solih rejects this claim. “We do not view it as a zero-sum game where good relations with one country are at the cost of relations with the other,” he told in an email interview.
The controversy surrounding the “gifts” Delhi handed the Maldives—two helicopters in 2010 and 2013, and a light aircraft in 2020—is one of the reasons the “India-first” strategy has lost favour. According to Delhi, the aircraft will be utilised for medical and search-and-rescue missions.
However, the Maldivian defence force said in 2021 that some 75 Indian military personnel were stationed there to fly and repair Indian aircraft.
The opposition then launched an “India out” campaign, calling for Indian security troops to leave the Maldives, shortly after. The opposition said the country’s national security was put in jeopardy by the presence of these military troops.
It has now emerged as a crucial electoral issue, although Solih claims that these worries are overstated.
“There are no militarily active overseas personnel stationed in the Maldives. Indian personnel currently present in the country are under the operational command of the Maldives National Defence Force,” he said.
The Maldives became closer to China and joined President Xi Jinping’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to construct road, rail, and marine ties between China and the rest of the globe, under Abdulla Yameen, who served as president from 2013 to 2018.
Yameen appealed to Beijing for financial assistance after India and Western lenders refused to provide loans to his government over claims of human rights violations. Beijing provided the funds without any restrictions.
He is prohibited from running in this year’s election since he is presently serving an 11-year jail sentence for corruption. Miuzzu is frequently seen as Yameen’s stand-in.
China is an obvious alternative for the opposition to turn to for help given Yameen’s sour relationship with Delhi.