Elephants in the Room
Is Abdulla Yameen Handing Over the Maldives to China?
The island nation is on the verge of conceding its sovereignty.
Remember the good old days, when China proudly proclaimed the principle of noninterference in other nations’ internal affairs and pledged never to build military bases overseas? That now seems like a long-forgotten past. The current crisis unfolding in the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives is a grim reminder of just how much times have changed: China has emerged in recent years, because of its economic ascent, as a neocolonial practitioner of predatory economics, which is sparking a new Great Game in the Indo-Pacific. In the words of former Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem, “What is happening in the Maldives is not just about democracy, it is about peace, security, and stability in the entire Indian Ocean neighborhood.”
The Maldives has long been a foothold of the Indian sphere of influence in South Asia. Since both nations gained independence from Great Britain, India has played a major role in helping build the Maldivian economy, as well as in underwriting political stability in the country. India backed the authoritarian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom for several decades, even sending troops to preempt a 1988 military coup attempt. As related in Sushant Singh’s book, Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible in the Maldives, Indian troops arrived at Hulhule airport in the Maldives just 16 hours after receiving a request from Gayoom.
However, it is simply a sign of the times that the continuity of the Indo-Maldives relationship has been shaken to the point it has been by external interference. As has been the case in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, an increasingly powerful and assertive China is melding its Belt and Road Initiative with its global maritime ambitions, throwing cash around to create dependent client states, and brazenly challenging India on New Delhi’s home turf, the Indian Ocean.
Remarkably, before 2012, Beijing didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldivian capital of Malé, given the smidgeon of diplomatic importance it assigned to the small atoll. Yet today, the country is awash with Chinese tourists, as well as large streams of Chinese foreign investment. A report by the Center for Global Development says the largest Chinese investment projects are an $830 million upgrade of the airport, including a 1.3-mile bridge to link the airport island with the capital, which is a $400 million project. The Chinese are also building a 25-story apartment complex and a hospital.
The opposition party claims that these Chinese projects account for some 70 percent of the total Maldivian debt, and $92 million a year in payments to China, roughly 10 percent of the entire budget. China has emerged as a ubiquitous presence in the Maldivian infrastructure, trade, and energy sectors. Additionally, China has signed a free trade agreement with the Maldives and has “leased the uninhabited island Feydhoo Finolhu for tourism use for 50 years,” according to the Asia Times. This hard economic power that emanates from Beijing, dwarfing India’s long-standing civilizational, diplomatic, and cultural overtures — as well as its own commercial outreach — has concerned policymakers and the strategic elite in New Delhi, as well as in Malé.
Opposition politicians within the Maldives fear the Chinese are setting a debt trap, as they did for Sri Lanka. Indeed, this “debt-for-leverage model is based on providing Chinese financial support for infrastructure projects in exchange for access to the natural resources of the beneficiary nation,” according to Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Just has been the case in other small and poor nations where China has exercised its geo-economic clout over in recent years, it seems that the Maldives is on the verge of conceding its sovereignty to Beijing as a direct consequence of Chinese business taking advantage of the economic opportunities present in the small island country. Despite insistence to the contrary by the Chinese Foreign Ministry — which stated, “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives,” in urging that the current spate of political turmoil be resolved by Maldivian institutions and processes — it is evident to international observers that that option is part of the dragon’s long ball strategy.
It is important to consider that often Belt and Road projects do not always serve economic but rather geo-strategic, grand motives. Furthermore, these are not a slew of projects that have been shown to always be successful. In Sri Lanka, the Chinese-built international airport is a rarely used white elephant. In Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, the Chinese have been busy building ports, which they say are only for civilian use. While it is premature to see a conspiratorial chain of Chinese military facilities, it is also difficult to conclude that they are unrelated to Chinese maritime ambitions.
Opposition politicians accuse Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen of allowing a Chinese land grab of 16 islands and of inflating the costs for personal gain. In addition, during a meeting in early December with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Yameen signed a free trade agreement, which he rammed through parliament, allowing legislators only one day to approve it.
Yameen’s Chinese connection has prompted to popular protests, leading him to declare a state of emergency and arrest Supreme Court judges last month after they ruled for the release of opposition politicians. Additionally, it has raised global concern over what the U.N. human rights chief called an “assault on democracy.” Yameen’s actions have also drawn ire from India, the traditional peacekeeper in the region, though it has yet to take any direct action in the country, despite former President Mohamed Nasheed’s call for Indian troops to help stabilize the conflict-wracked island.
Yameen’s controversial and suspect business connections do not stop with China. What has caught U.S. attention however, are Japanese charges — complete with a video — that Maldivian tankers have been secretly transferring goods to North Korean-flagged ships in grotesque violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions. Under the U.N. sanctions, the United States can request the flag nation to board a suspect ship. This could lead to the U.S. Navy confronting Yameen’s regime, a threat the country can only take seriously, given that Japan has already levied this accusation several times this year to no avail.
The opposition party charges that members of Yameen’s family control the Maldivian tankers in question and that a tanker was used as collateral in an application for a $4 million mortgage with the Bank of Maldives.
The state of emergency Yameen declared after popular protests in reaction to his Chinese connection and what the opposition sees as a corrupt regime has caused a crisis. In addition to threatening stability in the region, the crisis has set back the tourist-dependent Maldivian economy and become the focus of international condemnation at a time when it already occupies a dangerous crux in an increasingly volatile region.
There is a clear pattern in which the Maldives is but the latest example of China using its infrastructure projects in a rim around India to build ports while also creating debt dependency that increases Chinese political leverage. All this portends a growing Great Game in the Indo-Pacific region.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a former official in the U.S. Department of State during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @Rmanning4