Unrest in the Maldives has the potential to escalate tensions between China and India given their competition for regional influence, ratings agency Fitch warned Thursday.
A state of emergency declared Monday night by President Abdulla Yameen has triggered an onslaught of travel warnings from foreign governments, including China and the UK, advising their holidaymakers to be careful.
It has also put rivals India and China at loggerheads, with former president Mohamed Nasheed asking for New Delhi’s military intervention and Beijing advising the international community to respect the sovereignty of the Maldives “instead of further complicating the situation.”
The Maldives significance comes from its proximity to international sea lanes through which the majority of the world’s oil and half of its container shipments pass.
“The situation highlights the polarised nature of politics in the Maldives that has posed a risk to stability over the last decade,” said Fitch. “The current bout of turmoil could be protracted and may still intensify. The unrest even has the potential to escalate tensions between regional powers such as China and India, given their competition for influence in south Asia.
“The government’s large infrastructure and construction projects have added to pressures in recent years. Much of the financing for these projects has come from abroad.”
A free trade deal and the vast sums that China is lending the Maldives have bound the two countries closer together, spooking India.
On Wednesday Yameen dispatched special envoys to friendly nations – China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – to provide updates on the state of emergency.
India, which is geographically closer to the Maldives than these three countries, is not on the list.
Maldivian ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed, explained the omission was due to scheduling issues.
“India was in fact the first stop planned and proposed for a visit of a special envoy of the president of Maldives. However, the dates proposed were not suitable for the Indian leadership,” he told PTI.
The Maldives embassy in New Delhi later issued a statement, hitting back at reports India had been “bypassed.”
“The first stop of special envoy of the President was India…but the visit was cancelled on the request of the Government of India. The Government of the Maldives was informed that the said dates were not suitable for India’s leadership.
“It is therefore grossly misleading to say that The Government of the Maldives was bypassing India.”
Yameen declared a state of emergency in response to a Supreme Court ruling ordering the release of key prisoners. He launched a purge of even more of his opponents, throwing former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and two top judges in jail, and suspended around 20 constitutional rights.
The ratings agency also warned about the impact of the crisis on the tourism sector, which is the country’s biggest industry.
“This high dependence on one sector subjects the economy to volatility, and leaves it vulnerable to developments that undermine the Maldives’ attractiveness as a holiday destination, such as the current bout of political instability or safety threats.”