Maldives: trouble in paradise

The Maldives, a small island nation best known for tourism and a Cabinet meeting that was held underwater to draw attention to global warming, is in crisis. President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency, cracking down on opposition politicians and Supreme Court judges who have challenged his rule. The country’s location has elevated a domestic crisis into a geopolitical problem: Maldives is a potentially strategic outpost in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives are a chain of 26 atolls, situated southwest of India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. While the country’s image is that of a sleepy tourist destination, national politics have been in near constant churn for several years. The islands became a British protectorate in 1887 and gained independence in 1965; a presidential republic was established three years later. Mohamed Nasheed became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2009 but he resigned three years later after the police and army mutinied. In 2013, Yameen was elected president in a ballot that his opponents say was rigged.

Yameen’s reign has been controversial. He has been accused of eroding democracy by silencing dissent and arresting opposition leaders. Nasheed was imprisoned in March 2015 on terrorism charges stemming from his decision to arrest a Supreme Court judge while he was president. (He was released on medical parole a year later.) Criticism of his policies and the threat of suspension prompted Yameen to withdraw Maldives from the U.K. Commonwealth.

The current crisis began earlier this month when the Supreme Court ordered the release of nine dissidents and the reinstatement of 12 legislators who were fired for leaving Yameen’s ruling Progressive Party of Maldives. The ruling would have given the opposition a majority in the legislature. Yameen instead sent the military to seize the Supreme Court building. He then declared a state of emergency and arrested the chief justice and another judge, along with his half brother, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country for 30 years. The remaining three judges reversed the initial decision that sparked the crisis.

International reaction to the situation has been almost uniformly critical. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Yameen to end the state of emergency, while U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called Yameen’s acts an “all-out assault on democracy.” Governments in Japan, the United States, Europe and other democracies condemned developments.

One notable exception has been China, which instead called on the international community to play a “constructive role” in the crisis and urged other countries to respect Maldives’ internal affairs. That comment likely targeted New Delhi, which considers Maldives a part of its sphere of influence and which dispatched troops to quell a coup on the islands in 1988.

Indian influence in Maldives has been eroding throughout Yameen’s tenure, a process that began in 2012, when an Indian firm lost the contract to manage the country’s international airport. China has stepped into the breach: Nasheed alleges that China has taken over more than 70 percent of Maldives’ debt and nearly a quarter of the country’s budget is used for interest payments. In 2015, the Maldives’ constitution was amended to allow foreigners to buy land, an opportunity that China is said to be eager to seize, and last year three Chinese military vessels docked at a Maldives’ port, another sign of China’s growing interest in the islands. Maldives has backed China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative; keeping with past practice, investment in the country could lead to an eventual military port or presence.

That is an immediate challenge to India and President Narendra Modi, who harbors ambitions to regional leadership. Former President Nasheed has called on India to intervene in this crisis and remove Yameen from office, an invitation that Modi has thus far declined, despite encouragement from Indian foreign policy hawks who seek not only to show India’s reach and power but also want to check China’s expansion.

While India and China have the largest stake in developments, Japan is not a disinterested observer. Tokyo is y keenly aware of the islands’ strategic importance. In January, Taro Kono made the first visit to the islands by a Japanese foreign minister, where he met Maldivian Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim. They agreed on the importance of the rule of law to regional peace and prosperity and promised to promote bilateral cooperation in maritime security and safety. They also agreed to launch a dialogue to advance cooperation in a variety of fields.

Democracy and the rule of law was likely not on that list; given the centrality of values to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy that is a sad oversight. Unfortunately, President Yameen is unlikely to pay attention.