Parliamentary elections are not due in Maldives until April 6, but the campaign has already begun. And while the vote will be local, the poll is shaping into a geopolitical contest between pro-India and pro-China parties in the strategically located archipelago.

At presidential elections last September, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the pro-Delhi candidate for what was then the political opposition, defeated the pro-Beijing president Abdulla Yameen. Following the result, Yameen tried to have the results annulled but was overruled by the courts.

There are 87 People’s Majlis’ seats up for grabs at the polls, with a mish mash of parties all promising better governance, social services and education. Solih’s Maldives Democratic Party is running overtly on an anti-corruption ticket – a not so subtle jab at Yameen’s tainted Progress Party of Maldives.

On February 6, police charged the ex-president with corruption and money-laundering in a move that is widely seen as an attempt to shake off Maldives’ dependence on China, which, according to Yameen’s opponents, became overwhelming when he was in power from 2013 to 2018.

Friendly relations between Maldives and China predates Yameen’s rise to power, to be sure, but it was during his presidency — and much to the chagrin of the island nation’s traditional ally India — that those ties deepened and grew.

China helped to upgrade the Maldives’ international airport on Hulhule, a separate island near the capital Male, and a 1.4-kilometer bridge was built to connect the two islands.

The Sinamale Bridge, formerly known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, was built with funding from China in the Maldives capital Male. But former president Abdulla Yameen was beaten in an election last month that was a fight for influence between India and China. Photo: AFP
The Sinamale Bridge, formerly known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, was built with funding from China in the Maldives capital Male. Photo: AFP

In December 2014, the Maldives signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing in support of president Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the first countries worldwide to do so.

Chinese money also went into land leases on some of the islands in the archipelago and, in early 2018, China and Maldives announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observatory Station on one of the northern islands.

India saw that and other Chinese initiatives as direct threats to its interests in the region. The now ongoing investigation into Yameen’s financial dealings began after the authorities filed a complaint to the police, which includes allegations of paybacks for the leasing of land to Chinese companies.

Maldives is a tiny country in terms of area and population — only 417,000 people live on its 298 square kilometers of land — but its more than 1,000 coral islands and atolls cover a huge maritime area stretching 750 kilometers from north to south.

Maldives’ proximity to lines of communications across the Indian Ocean, as well as to the Indian navy base on the Lakshadweep islands immediately to the north of Maldives, means that it is of utmost strategic importance to India.

Not only India is concerned about China’s forays into the Indian Ocean. The United States maintains one of its most important overseas military bases on leased land in Diego Garcia, the main island in the British Indian Ocean Territory south of Maldives.

New Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (R) embraces Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) during Solih’s presidential inauguration in Male, November 17, 2018. Photo: Handout/PIB/AFP

The Diego Gracia base provides crucial logistical support for America’s military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Former US military personnel have stated that the highly secretive base was one of the locations for the CIA’s “black sites”, where terror suspects were held and interrogated.

Solih’s election victory last year was a diplomatic victory for India. To show his support, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi flew to Male to attend the inauguration of the new president in November.

In January, Maldives’ new Defense Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi flew to New Delhi to meet her Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman and senior military chiefs. It was the Maldivian defense minister’s first visit outside of the country since her appointment.

During the visit, she was reported in the Maldivian media to have said that “India no longer has need to worry over Maldives, since the new government and the government of India share the same democratic values.”

Solih is clearly trying to re-establish friendly relations with India, which turned sour when Yameen was in power. But, according to an Indian observer of Maldivian politics: “There is nothing to suggest that China’s stay in whatever form has actually been reduced. But it is quite possible that there may be problems for China when it comes to trying to get new projects.”

Significantly, China was one of the first countries to congratulate Solih after his election victory last year. At the time, Geng Shuang, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said China and Maldives “enjoyed a traditional friendship” and that in recent years the two had cooperated for “mutual benefits under the BRI.” Geng also expressed China’s willingness to continue that cooperation.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 7, 2017 Maldives' President Abdulla Yameen (L) and China's President Xi Jinping listen to their national anthems during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.Back when he was a mild-mannered civil servant, few in the Maldives predicted Abdulla Yameen would one day run the country, let alone with an iron grip, locking up judges, his rivals and even his 80-year-old half-brother. / AFP PHOTO / Fred DUFOUR
Then Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping listen to their national anthems during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour

But what can Maldives do to lessen its dependence on China? Mohamed Nasheed, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 and later fled into exile, has said publicly that China’s actions in the country amount to “land grab” and “colonialism.”

An estimated 80% of Maldives’ foreign debt is held by Beijing. At the end of 2017, Maldives’ external debt amounted to US$1.2 billion and its debt-to-gross domestic product ratio rose to 26%, up from 20% in 2016.

The conditions attached to Chinese loans are still, even under the new government, being kept under wraps. And it remains to be seen if Solih’s — and Nasheed’s — ruling party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, will make them public before the parliamentary elections in April.

Some of the details may emerge during the hearings into Yameen’s alleged corruption cases, but China is unlikely to let the Maldives slip easily from its newly gained sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean.

Observers are looking at neighboring Sri Lanka, where the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe blamed his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa for letting the country fall into a Chinese “debt trap.”

But it was Wickremesinghe who finally did the “debt-for-equity” swap on the port at Hambantota, whereby Chinese interests were able to secure 70% of the facility over a 99-year period in exchange for debt relief. Rajapaksa, seen as pro-Chinese when he was in power, actually opposed the deal, saying it was “selling the nation” to foreign powers.

Whether a similar scenario will be played out in Maldives remains to be seen. But it is clear that India and China’s rivalry for influence in the island nation will be reflected at the April elections, as they did at the presidential race in September.