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Belt and Road

Maldives election marks setback for China's Belt and Road

Beijing expected to move fast to court new India-leaning president

Supporters of Maldivian President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih celebrate in Male on Sept. 24.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/BEIJING -- China's effort to extend its influence into the Indian Ocean has hit a stumbling block as Maldivians have rejected a leader who brought their country closer to Beijing in favor of an opposition candidate aligned with India and the U.S.

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih -- a 54-year-old member of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party -- won a landslide victory over President Abdulla Yameen in an election on Sept. 23 watched around the world. The island nation has risen in geopolitical importance for Beijing, New Delhi and Washington, given its strategic location on a sea lane linking the Middle East and East Asia.

The result marks a setback for Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, of which Yameen was an early supporter, accepting funding for bridges, housing and other infrastructure projects.

Yameen also signed a free trade agreement with Beijing late last year. From January to June, 18% of the Maldives' imports came from China, which surpassed India at 11% to become the second-largest exporter to the archipelago nation, after the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

Frequent speculation that China will build a military port in the Maldives has galvanized India, the self-appointed hegemon of South Asia, and the U.S., which has a naval base on the British island of Diego Garcia to the south of the archipelago.

India has sounded the alarm on a pro-Beijing Maldives. After Yameen declared a state of emergency in February, the opposition called on India for military intervention. New Delhi dispatched warships immediately to pressure Yameen.

India spared no expense supporting local opposition parties by allotting tens of millions of dollars to intelligence agencies, a government source said. In a veiled swipe at China, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said on Sept. 24 that the election outcome "marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law."

The election is also a win for the Trump administration as Washington, worried over China's growing influence in the Indian Ocean, advances its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis held their first two-plus-two dialogue with Indian counterparts this month. Reflecting the strategic shift, the U.S. Pacific Command was renamed the Indo-Pacific Command in May.

Although Beijing had not released a comment on the election results, the defeat of a pro-China incumbent apparently came as a shock. Concerned about a drift back toward India, the Chinese will likely waste no time building a relationship with Solih through economic cooperation.

Beijing is also expected to court the new administration with a soft stance on the country's estimated $2 billion debt to China, a substantial burden for a nation of only about 400,000 people with an economy that relies heavily on tourism.

China has scored wins in other South Asian nations, however. A pro-Beijing government came to power in Indian-leaning Nepal this February after elections late last year. New Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has also signaled an emphasis on relations with China.

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