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China’s short-term affair with Yameen

The Maldives is not China, where predictability and stability can be achieved in a relatively subdued population. If China wants predictability, stability, and sustainability for its interests in the Maldives, it must support democracy, not complex authoritarianism, argues Hassan Hameed.



On 30 December 2015, China will launch a project for a 200-million dollar worth bridge connecting the capital Male with the nearby island Hulhumale. The bridge is one of the main election pledges of President Yameen.

Locally, President Yameen’s government projects the “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” as a symbol of his “performance legitimacy” – the idea that Yameen can get things done, therefore, he should be the President.

But the bridge is also a symbol of the narrow, short-term Chinese foreign policy in the Maldives.

How China became Yameen’s main friend

President Yameen has a few foreign allies. This is not necessarily an outcome because India and the West are particularly interested in human rights or democracy promotion in the Maldives. As German political theorist Carl Schmitt presciently pointed out, the ideal of human rights can be a cover for other strategic interests. One has only to point out that they had also been supportive of President Gayoom’s authoritarianism for 25 years.

The broken relations of President Yameen and the West are partly to do with Yameen himself. If interpersonal chemistry has any role in foreign relations, President Yameen is a good example of how chemistry could negatively affect relations. Several diplomatic sources reportedly mention how difficult it was to have a proper conversation with him even before he became a President.

But the broken relations are also partly an outcome of the nature of his regime: despotism. As a despotism that has increasingly suppressed political opponents, President Yameen has found in China a natural ally that could cloth ears in the face of any level of public criticisms. For China, human rights and democracy as even a hypothetical basis of foreign relations is just “nonsense upon stilts.” So it seems.

What China also must consider

But surely China also wants predictability, stability, and sustainability for its interests in the Maldives. It is on these material and strategic reasons that one can argue China’s policy in the Maldives is extremely narrow.

The Maldives is not China, where predictability and stability can be achieved in a relatively subdued population. In a country where there is a politically volatile population with active political parties, stability and predictability align with democracy not complex authoritarianism.

President Yameen suffers from a deep legitimation crisis. As a result, he’s resorting to coercion, instead of consent as a principle to rule. It is not unlikely the situation will not result in a violent solution – something not favourable to Chinese interests.

But, more predictably, President Yameen does not represent the future of the Maldives. Credible survey sources suggest Yamin’s popularity is less than 20%, and MDP and President Nasheed remain the most popular party.

Is China going to witness a Sirisena moment in the Maldives?

Future of democratisation

The narrowness of Chinese policy is partly an outcome of MDP’s uncritical foreign policy.

MDP’s foreign policy is influenced by a certain “Enlightenment” liberalism. In this narrative, the West is presumed to be the sole bearer or main bearers of Civilisation and goods like human rights and democracy. Their actual foreign policies (such as the support for Dr Waheed government that facilitated de-democratisation in the Maldives) are not critically assessed.

President Nasheed has also unnecessarily humiliated China on issues like the New Silk Road. There has been no objective assessment of these policies. MDP does not seem to assess Chinese policies independently of Indian thinking, a result of a certain romanticised infatuation with “India”.

The longevity of despotism in the Maldives now may depend on how China and MDP adjust their policies towards each other.

On Chinese part, what requires is nothing more than a delay in aid in the pipeline until President Yamin reverts to normal politics, a necessary condition of which is allowing MDP to function as a normal party with a leader of its choice.

On MDP’s part, what requires is assurance to China that it could play a substantial role in the Maldives.

Hassan Hameed is a graduate in international relations from the University of Sydney

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