Mon, Feb 12, 2018 - Page 4 News List

India, China vie for influence in crisis-hit Maldives

AP, NEW DELHI

The Maldivian capital of Male and nearby Thilafushi Island, top, is pictured in an aerial photograph on Sept. 11, 2013.

Photo: AFP

As a political crisis plays out in the Maldives, a quiet tug-of-war is taking place around it, with heavyweights China and India vying for strategic dominance in the picturesque Indian Ocean nation.

At first glance, Beijing and New Delhi want no part in the turmoil that erupted on Feb. 1 when the Maldivian Supreme Court overturned the convictions of several opposition politicians, including the president’s main rival.

Chinese and Indian officials spoke in usual diplomatic tones, saying they have no interest in interfering in the archipelago’s internal affairs.

However, in reality, both have strategic regional interests to safeguard and are jostling for the upper hand.

Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom has sent envoys to “friendly nations” China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to explain his government’s position since he rejected the court ruling, imposed a state of emergency last week and arrested two of the Supreme Court judges.

His actions fueled suspicion that he has no intention of easing up on eliminating his rivals and tightening his hold on power ahead of this year’s elections.

His most powerful opponent, exiled former Maldivian president Mohammed Nasheed, appealed to India to send troops to end the crisis.

“On behalf of Maldivian people we humbly request: 1. India to send envoy, backed by its military, to release judges & pol. Detainees ... We request a physical presence,” Nasheed tweeted last week.

Traditionally, the archipelago of 1,200 islands and a population of 390,000 Sunni Muslims has been firmly in New Delhi’s sphere of influence, with India even intervening in 1988 when a group of mercenaries tried to seize power.

Its support helped keep former Maldivian president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in power for three decades and later aided Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader who became famous when he used his low-lying archipelago nation to highlight the risk of rising sea levels and climate change.

However, Male began tilting toward Beijing after Yameen, the half-brother of Gayoom, came to power in 2013 by defeating Nasheed.

Yameen has rolled back many of Nasheed’s democratic gains, with all of his potential political opponents either jailed or in exile.

His government curbed freedom of speech and assembly, with heavy fines imposed on journalists and social media users found guilty of defamation.

In 2015, in a trial widely criticized by rights groups, Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He later received asylum in Britain.

China saw the developments as an opening.

“Until 2011, China didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldives. Coming to 2018, it’s seen as a big player in this whole Indian Ocean region,” said Mahalakshmi Ganapathy, an India-China expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

When Yameen visited Beijing in December last year, the two countries signed a free-trade agreement that eliminates most tariffs on Maldivian exports, primarily fish, and opens the island nation to Chinese goods and services, including in finance, healthcare and tourism.

China is already the Maldives’ primary source of tourists, whose spending largely drives the economy, and Beijing is investing hundreds of millions of US dollars in an airport expansion, housing development and other projects.

China sees the Maldives as a crucial part of its “One Belt One Road” project along ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. The initiative envisages building ports, railways and roads to expand trade — and China’s influence — in a swathe across Asia, Africa and Europe.

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