Over the weekend, China’s ambassador to Maldives, Zhang Lizhong, paid a courtesy call on Solih armed with an invite for the Maldivian leader to visit Beijing. He was the second foreign envoy to meet Solih since his victory in the 2018 presidential election on 23 September, the Indian high commissioner to the Maldives Akhilesh Mishra being the first to call on Solih last week.
“During the call, they (Zhang and Solih) discussed how China can continue to assist the Maldives with its development, in particular in housing, water and sewerage, and tourism," a statement from the Maldives president-elect’s office said. Zhang and Solih “discussed foreign policy and the president-elect mentioned that his foreign policy priorities would focus on democracy, human rights, and climate change," the statement said. During talks, Zhang “extended an invitation to the president-elect to make a state visit to China once he is sworn into office" on 17 November, it added.
That the envoys of India and China were the first two to make calls on Solih is indicative of the importance both countries attach to the Maldives. Leaders of India and the Maldives—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping—also telephoned Solih to congratulate him soon after the results came in. China’s concerns vis-a-vis the new dispensation in the Maldives stem from Solih’s and former president Mohamed Nasheed’s statements that infrastructure projects flagged off during outgoing president Yameen’s term will be reviewed.
“It’s (Solih’s win) a big gain for India and a setback for China and Saudi Arabia. But it’s too soon to count out the losing party," said Bruce Reidel, senior fellow at Washington-based think tank Brookings.
It was in September 2014 that Yameen signed onto China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative(BRI). India which considers the Maldives as within its traditional sphere of influence in South Asia, watched with dismay as former president Yameen drifted deeper into the Chinese orbit with the BRI and the award of key contracts to Chinese companies.
Under Yameen’s watch, Beijing’s footprint in the Maldives increased substantially with Chinese companies undertaking construction of a housing complex in Hulhumalé, investing up to $830 million to upgrade the Maldives airport and building a 2-km China-Maldives Friendship Bridge between the airport island and Male.
Last year, the Maldives also concluded a free trade pact with China which was viewed with considerable consternation by India which was of the view that it would allow cheap Chinese goods into India via the Maldives.
As it stands, Solih, who has invited Modi for his swearing-in ceremony on 17 November, has said he will maintain ties with China and Saudi Arabia. And while a relook at infrastructure projects awarded during the Yameen era might be possible, withdrawing from them is not a given. A recent article in China’s state-run Global Times, seen to reflect the views of Beijing, said “mutually beneficial cooperation" was expected to continue under Solih.
News reports from the Maldives quoting an unnamed official from the outgoing Yameen administration predicted that Solih was unlikely to “refuse trade or investment from China" despite a diplomatic adjustment in favour of India.
A recent opinion piece in the South China Morning Post suggested “there will be no ditching, only diplomatic rebalancing" of China-Maldives ties by Solih as the benefits of Chinese investment outweighed concerns over debt – a reference to concerns that three projects that China was engaged in the Maldives added upto more than half of the Maldives’ GDP . “The election result is not a setback for Beijing. Nations, especially smaller ones, have to play a balancing act with trade and investment, so as not to become too dependent on any one partner. Solih can put his country’s interests first through China and India being counterbalances," the opinion piece said.
A person familiar with the developments said New Delhi would be looking to see that its strategic interests and security concerns were kept in mind by the Maldives once Solih takes office. According to C. U. Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies think tank, “India should not be forcing any of its neighbours including the Maldives to make binary choices (between India and China). India should instead be supportive of these countries doing things that are in their interest while doing what it can to help them in an equitable and transparent manner," he added.