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A Chinese connection that will prove costly for the Maldives

The Maldives’ increasing reliance on China is pushing the island nation into alarming economic debt

opinion Updated: Dec 10, 2017 17:41 IST
The Maldives,China,Sri lanka
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and China's President Xi Jinping attend a signing meeting, Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China, December 7, 2017(REUTERS)

The Maldives, an island paradise for tourists, is ruled by a geopolitical serpent. The Maldivian president, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, has been using Chinese money and Saudi Arabia-backed Islamicism to throttle his country’s democratic polity. The direction he is taking the strategically important Indian Ocean archipelagic state is raising eyebrows in New Delhi.

Yameen just completed a four-day state visit to Beijing where he signed free trade and maritime agreements with China. In of themselves, these are innocuous. Placed in the ways and means of Yameen’s past four years of rule, his actions are less benign. “We are weighing our options,” said a senior Indian official when asked about developments in the Maldives.

Yameen defeated the liberal candidate, Mohamed Nasheed, in elections in 2013. Since then, however, he has used his hold of the police and judiciary to persecute his political opponents.

With presidential elections due next year, Yameen’s tastes for foreign funding and repressions have increased. The political winds don’t favour him. In local council elections in May, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party and its allies won 319 seats against the ruling party’s 191.

The Maldivian president has been throwing around China cards since he came to power. Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit the country in 2014. China was then granted large scale infrastructure contracts, including a bridge connecting the main Maldivian islands, port facilities and an airport. The IMF has projected the Maldives’ external debt, presently 34.7%, will reach 51% of GDP by 2021. Two thirds of this debt is Chinese held.

By Indian assessments these projects carry price tags two to three times higher than normal. The assumption is Yameen and his cronies have been lining their pockets. The piper has already begun calling the tune. Three Chinese naval ships docked in Male in August and the Maldives has endorsed the Belt Road Initiative. India has seen this script before: It is a rerun of Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s attempt to leverage Beijing and distance himself from New Delhi.

India is also watching Yameen’s other international link: Saudi Arabia. The Maldivian president has used local gangs with Islamicist links to muscle his domestic opponents. A number of liberal bloggers and journalists have since been killed or disappeared. At Riyadh’s behest, Yameen has broken relations with Iran and Qatar. More dangerously, about 100 to 200 Maldivians have joined the ranks of Islamic State. However, Yameen’s relations were with Saudi Arabian factions who were recently purged by the present crown prince. New Delhi is already in communication with Riyadh.

New Delhi has shown its displeasure indirectly. The Maldives is the only South Asian neighbour that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not visited. It is likely India will wait to see what happens in the elections next year. The ballot box helped remove Rajapaksa from office. The danger is that Yameen seems to be trying to ensure the elections will not matter. At that point, India’s options may narrow dramatically.

pchaudhuri@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Dec 10, 2017 16:46 IST