India surges ahead of China in the Maldives

India surges ahead of China in the Maldives

New Delhi is well aware that a change in government in the archipelago could mean that the pendulum could once again swing in China's favour 

Representative Image. Credit: iStock Photo

The ongoing jostling for strategic influence between New Delhi and Beijing in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives has just seen India surge ahead after it bagged the contract to build the $500 million Greater Malé Connectivity Project (GMCP) last week.

Billed as the "largest-ever infrastructure project" in the Maldives, India has reason to be pleased now that the contract has been signed. The gargantuan project envisages linking capital Malé with the islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi with a 6.74-km-long bridge and causeway link.

Once constructed, this mega project will overshadow the Chinese-built 1.4-km-long Sinmalé bridge. Referred to as the China-Maldives Friendship bridge, it links capital Malé to the islands of Hulhule and Hulhumalé. 

The Chinese-constructed bridge is an important element of China's Maritime Silk Road Initiative, which the Maldives signed onto in 2014. Another close Indian neighbour, Sri Lanka, is also part of this initiative, adding to New Delhi's worries as China increases its footprint in the region. 

The Sinmalé bridge was inaugurated on August 30, 2018, days ahead of the presidential polls in the archipelago in September that year. The then-president, the China-leaning Abdulla Yameen, was possibly hoping to reap the benefits by winning another five-year term. 

To Yameen's dismay and undoubtedly to India's great relief, he lost. Instead, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was back in the saddle, winning an overwhelming majority and party co-founder Ibrahim 'Ibu' Solih becoming the president. Ever since, New Delhi has stepped on the throttle, making the most of an India-friendly government in place in Malé to deliver swiftly on infrastructure projects and regain its strategic space from China.

Indeed, the 'battle of the bridges' can be seen as a metaphor for the tussle between the two Asian giants to extend their sphere of influence not just in the Maldives but the wider Indian Ocean Region. With China lurking in its periphery, India's security concerns have been heightened in recent years. Additionally, Islamist elements continue to thrive in the Maldives and remain a threat not just to its stability but also to the region. 

With its abundant resources and money, China has been wooing countries in India's neighbourhood through huge infrastructure projects. Even the distinct possibility of falling into a 'debt trap' has not held them back from availing of Chinese loans. 

In the Maldives, China held sway during President Yameen's presidency between 2013 and 2018. But India has been able to claw back onto the centrestage since the 2018 electoral defeat of Yameen, working to deliver small and large-scale projects in the archipelago through development assistance. 

The funding for the GMCP has two elements -- a $400-million Line of Credit (LoC) and a $100-million grant. India's attempts to keep China at bay have seen it providing to the Maldives a financial assistance package of $1.4 billion apart from LoCs worth $1.2 billion to build infrastructure. 

Lending a sense of urgency to India's work in the Maldives is the knowledge that the country is still a fledgling democracy where systems and institutions are still evolving. Besides, New Delhi is well aware that a change in government in the archipelago could mean that the pendulum could once again swing in China's favour. 

That anti-India sentiments within certain quarters in the Maldives come to the fore from time to time also need to be part of New Delhi's calculus. There has already been an "India Out" campaign, which saw Yameen's supporters leading it last year and questioning their country's dependence on New Delhi for executing projects. 

Yameen himself is under house arrest after spending some time behind bars on being sentenced to a five-year prison term following conviction in a money laundering case. 

More recently, a website launched an 'India Out' campaign, which gathered steam on social media forcing the Indian High Commission in Malé to register its protest with the Maldivian foreign ministry, describing the attacks as "motivated" and "malicious". 

While such shrill campaigns are not unexpected, particularly with presidential elections in the Maldives just two years away, another development threatens the archipelago's political stability. And this is the manner in which former president and now speaker of the Maldivian Majlis (Parliament) Mohamed Nasheed appears to be consistently undermining and embarrassing his own party's government.

From charging his own party's ministers with corruption to calling for the imposition of emergency in the Maldives following the terror attack targeting him in June, Nasheed has been busy rocking the Solih government's boat. These pronouncements by Nasheed are widely perceived as the over-stepping of his role as Speaker of the Majlis.

It has led to a rift between Solih and Nasheed, both co-founders of the MDP. Recently, in an even more disconcerting move for his party and the government, Nasheed announced that he was willing to align with political foe Yameen, the very man who had sent him to prison on terror charges and his party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). 

While the PPM has rejected this proposal for now, the political cauldron in a nation with a nascent democracy continues to simmer. Early last month, Nasheed declared his intention to run for the presidency of the Maldives in the 2023 elections.

The split within the MDP is wide open. And if the party is unable to gather its act together in the next two years, the consolidation of democracy in this strategically located nation may well be the casualty. 

(The writer is a senior New Delhi-based journalist) 

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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