The Maldives: An Emerging Geopolitical Flashpoint

By Tiger Huang 

On February 5th, 2018, the President of the Republic of Maldives declared a 15-day state of emergency after the country’s Supreme Court ordered him to release a number of opposition political members that he had imprisoned. The Maldives’ domestic crisis reflects the growing competition among emerging powers in the Indian Ocean, namely China and India, and to a lesser extent, Islamists, in influencing an archipelago country otherwise known for its pristine beaches and clear waters.

Strategically situated in the Indian Ocean southwest of the Indian Peninsula, the Maldives is a crucial location where a number of maritime trade routes pass through, most notably, the routes between the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Hormuz with the Strait of Malacca. From 1558 to 1965, the Maldives had been under the influence of foreign powers including the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, who used the archipelago as an important stopping point in their maritime routes between India, Europe and the Southeast Asia. As maritime economic activity in the Indian Ocean has risen dramatically recent decades, so has the strategic importance of the Maldives.

After achieving independence in 1965, the Maldives received significant military and economic assistance from India. As the regional power, India provided the Maldives with initiatives including joint marine exercises and a number of economic aid programs. In 1988, India sent its army to Maldives to prevent a coup, with support from the Maldives and much of the international community.

In 2012, after the current president Abdulla Yameen seized power, the Maldives began to develop increasingly strong ties with China to counterbalance Indian influence and to seek new economic opportunities. Yameen’s government had made particular effort to attract tourism from China, which has been the Maldives’ largest source of foreign tourists since 2011. [1] This is especially significant, given that tourism accounts for more than a quarter of the country’s GDP and is the largest source of employment. [2] Conversely, Yameen cancelled an Indian deal to invest in an airport in the country’s capital in 2012, bringing the relations between the two countries to an all-time low. [3]

At the same time, China has also invested heavily in infrastructural projects in the Maldives, including the “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” scheduled for completion in August 2018, and an $800m airport extension in 2016 [4] [5]. In December 2017, China signed a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the Maldives after Yameen visited Beijing earlier that month. Under the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, China hopes to further increase its presence in the Maldives under the Maritime Silk Road.  

Expectedly, India has viewed China’s developments in the Maldives with much alarm. China’s growing investment, land ownership and political influence in the Maldives has been seen by India as part of an encroachment around the Indian Subcontinent and violation of its “Neighbourhood First Policy”, particularly given the recent developments in Doklam, Gwadar and Djibouti.  India particularly fears the Chinese navy building a military facility on a leased Maldivian port, a fact that both the Maldivian and Chinese governments deny.

On the same day that the state of emergency was declared, former Maldives Prime Minister and opposition leader-in-exile Mohamed Nasheed had called on India to militarily intervene and restore order in the country. China too has viewed this with disapproval, as the state-run Global Times cautioned that the country would take “necessary measures to stop India if New Delhi moves to intervene militarily.” [6]

At the same time, the Maldives has also seen an increase in extreme Islamism. Although traditionally a moderate Islamic country with a predominantly Muslim population, the Maldives has seen a rise in radicalism after democratic reforms in 2008 allowed more extremist ideas into the country, often brought about by Saudi-sponsored preachers. [7] In recent years, the Maldives has seen the murder of a number of “anti-Islamic” journalists and writers, as well as one of the world’s highest per-capita departures of foreign fighters to Syria and the Middle East. [8] Finally, in 2017, the Maldivian government made plans to give Saudi Arabia virtually complete control of Faafu, one of the country’s 26 atolls, thus further complicating the geopolitical situation.

Beyond the image of an idyllic tropical paradise, the Maldives has firmly been placed on the map as an increasingly important geopolitical area in the Indian Ocean. Whether between China, India or Islamists, the Maldives will remain an important location for any player attempting to increase its power and influence in the Indian Ocean.


Tiger Huang is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies International Relations and Finance with a minor in Chinese. He is the Blogger for South Pacific Affairs and the Deputy Editor of the SIR Online Journal.










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