The Maldives’ Presidential Race Has Geopolitical Stakes

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: The Maldives prepares for a presidential runoff with consequences for great-power competition, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could return from self-exile, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wraps up a rocky trip to New Delhi.

With no outright winner in the Maldives presidential election last Saturday, the country is preparing for a runoff on Sept. 30 between the top two contenders. Main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz—the mayor of the capital city, Male—took 46 percent of the vote, while incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came in second with 39 percent of the vote. Geopolitics cast a long shadow over the election, and the same will be true of the runoff.

Like many countries in South Asia, the Maldives has become a battleground for India-China competition; the island nation is strategically located in the center of the Indian Ocean. This great-power competition is now a fault line in domestic politics. Muiz is seen as pro-China and anti-India—much like his jailed political ally, Abdulla Yameen, who cultivated stronger ties with Beijing as president from 2013 to 2018. Solih, meanwhile, supports boosting relations with India.

This pattern of political rivals gravitating toward rival foreign powers is relatively recent for the country. The Maldives declared independence from the British in 1965, and for four decades it fell squarely under India’s sphere of influence. India’s government backed dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom for his 30-year rule, which ended in 2008. That year, the Maldives held its first democratic election, bringing Mohamed Nasheed to power. New Delhi embraced him as well.

Yameen took power in 2013, and the country slid back toward authoritarianism. During his tenure, China moved in with new infrastructure projects and a trade agreement. Soon afterward, the Maldives became a formal partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By 2018, Beijing had completed major projects in the country, including a new runway at the main international airport.

But when Solih was elected president that same year, the geopolitical tables turned again. The leader established an “India First” policy to strengthen partnership between Male and New Delhi, including pulling out of the trade deal with Beijing. In return, India approved $1.4 billion to help the Maldives finance loan paybacks to China. India also committed funds for community development projects, a new cancer hospital, a new port, and an airport upgrade.

When India launched its COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy campaign in 2021, the Maldives was the first country to receive shots: 100,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine. Last year, Solih visited New Delhi and signed agreements on cybersecurity, disaster management, and infrastructure, including a project announced in 2021 that will connect Male to three islands via a 6.74-kilometer (4.2-mile) sea bridge.

Yameen pushed back, at least until his legal woes worsened. Last year, the former president launched a campaign he called “India Out,” taking a hard line on New Delhi, including calling for the cancellation of defense deals. Muiz has pursued a similar position, vowing to expel all Indian military personnel from the Maldives if he wins the presidency; a spokesperson for his party recently called this position “non-negotiable.”

Although his “India First” policy signals his strong inclination for partnership with New Delhi, Solih’s position in the great-power competition is more balanced than that of his rivals. He has not taken a confrontational stance toward Beijing, hosting senior Chinese officials and concluding a series of commercial and cultural accords with China. And during his term, cooperation with India has picked up rapidly, especially when it comes to infrastructure.

To view the Maldives presidential election purely as a referendum on great-power rivalry would be an exaggeration, though. Muiz’s surprise success in the first round can be attributed to factors that may relate more to domestic matters than to public preferences for friendship with Beijing over New Delhi. Those include concerns about Solih’s handling of corruption allegations and fractures within his party.

Still, it’s no small matter that rival political leaders in a nonaligned state are associating themselves with competing powers. Some observers say that Yameen, who previously held a less hostile position toward India, may have adopted his “India Out” stance as a cynical ploy for votes. The campaign produced some anti-India sentiment and protests, but it’s difficult to gauge its impact on public opinion toward India on the whole in the Maldives.

Beijing and New Delhi will certainly watch the outcome of this month’s runoff closely. Perhaps only in Nepal—where China has reportedly intervened to unite leftist parties aligned with the government in Beijing—has India-China competition seeped so deeply into domestic politics. But in Kathmandu, no one seeking to head the government has campaigned on a platform demanding that India or China drastically curtail their influence.

Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan? On Tuesday, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) announced that the party’s chairman, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will return to Pakistan on Oct. 21. He exiled himself to London in 2019, citing medical reasons. Sharif previously served three terms as premier, the last cut short in 2017 when he was disqualified from politics on corruption charges. He has faced legal trouble ever since.

Sharif’s trajectory resembles that of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (ousted in April 2022) and other Pakistani leaders: He rose to the pinnacle of power thanks to strong relations with the military, and he lost it after he fell out with the generals. Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, led the government that handed over power to a caretaker administration last month.

Just beforehand, Pakistan’s parliament passed legislation lowering the length of political disqualifications to five years, seemingly paving the way for Nawaz Sharif to return and contest elections, which are expected early next year. But some caution is in order: Throughout Pakistan’s history, exiled leaders have promised to return only to renege. Sharif’s party currently has military backing, but its poor economic performance while in leadership has made it unpopular with the public.

Khan’s large support base despises Sharif, viewing him as incompetent and corrupt. The PML-N may hesitate to bring him back if it isn’t convinced that his return will energize the party base and position it to triumph in elections.

Trudeau’s rocky New Delhi trip. In a bizarre coda to last weekend’s G-20 summit in New Delhi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left India on Tuesday after getting stuck for two extra days due to a mechanical problem with his plane. Local media report that the Canadian government declined an offer from New Delhi for him to fly home on a jet used by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other senior officials.

The unusual delay offered fodder to Trudeau’s critics in India, where many people are unhappy with him for not doing enough to address New Delhi’s long-running concerns about Sikh protesters in Canada that the Indian government says are separatist agitators. Trudeau has countered that the issues of rule of law and freedom of speech limit his options for taking action.

Trudeau also had an awkward meeting with Modi on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, during which the Indian leader reiterated concerns about Sikh activists. Earlier this month, Canada also announced it would pause talks on a trade accord with India, saying that it wanted to take stock of the negotiations. Perhaps tellingly, Trudeau reportedly did not take any diplomatic meetings during his extra two days in India. However, when he departed on Tuesday, there was an Indian senior official at the airport to see him off.

Sri Lanka ransomware attack. On Monday, Sri Lanka’s government confirmed local reports that its cloud system was hit by a major ransomware attack on Aug. 26, likely triggered by someone with a Sri Lankan government email account clicking on a suspicious link. The attack was repelled within 12 hours, but the roughly 5,000 people with Sri Lankan government email accounts permanently lost data from between May and August because there was no system backup in place during that time.

Officials investigating the attack noted that the government cloud used a version of Microsoft Exchange that made it highly vulnerable. The incident is a sobering reminder of Colombo’s lack of robust cybersecurity, although it did pass legislation earlier this year that will establish its first cybersecurity national authority. Sri Lanka ranks 83rd out of 175 countries in the e-Governance Academy Foundation’s National Cyber Security Index, which measures countries’ preparedness to address cyber threats.

On Wednesday, Chinese diplomat Zhao Sheng presented his credentials in Kabul, formally becoming the first new ambassador from any country to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover more than two years ago. Zhao’s arrival offers a public relations boon to the Taliban, although no country—including China—has recognized the regime. The group pulled out all the stops for the new ambassador on Wednesday and suggested that Zhao’s appointment means that other countries should strengthen engagement, too.

China’s decision to send a new ambassador to Kabul is the latest indication that it could eventually become the first country to recognize the Taliban government. Before the takeover, Chinese officials hosted high-level engagements with Taliban leaders, and Beijing has since expressed a desire to invest in the country’s natural resources. (Its only known acquisition so far is an oil extraction agreement signed in January between the Taliban and a Chinese energy company.)

Unlike many of Afghanistan’s neighbors, China has enjoyed consistently friendly relations with Kabul for the past two years. The main obstacle to Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban regime is security concerns.

The Taliban have trumpeted recent crackdowns on Islamic State-Khorasan militants that attacked Chinese targets, but China remains concerned. It is also worried about the threat posed by a small group led by Uyghur militants, as well as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which is based in Afghanistan and has attacked Chinese projects over the border in Pakistan. Until Beijing is convinced that the Taliban is addressing these concerns, recognition remains unlikely.

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