Democracy Rises in the Maldives

Solih's big day; India-Pakistan breakdown; Moon's mission

The Big One.

A twist and turn in the Indian Ocean.

On Sunday, September 23, voters in the Maldives delivered a shocking result. Abdulla Yameen, the country’s autocratic-leaning president, lost to Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Mohamed Solih, the combined opposition’s candidate. Few had expected this outcome, instead expecting Yameen to do all in his power to bring down the institutions of the Maldivian state on the election process, rigging it in his favor. (The night before the election, the main campaign office of the opposition was raided by Maldivian police.)

The result was so significant that the Maldives—not known for grabbing international headlines—received coverage across major world newspapers. But, invariably, each story framed the victory in geopolitical terms. Yameen, in addition to his autocratic leanings, had taken the country swiftly in China’s direction, pulling it away from India, the Maldives’ historic partner and most proximal regional power geographically speaking. Solih, in the meantime, is viewed as generally more pro-India.

But this framing does a disservice to the real story, which is the outburst of democratic will in the country. Consider that despite expectations of Yameen-backed tampering, Solih pulled in 58 percent of the vote with a total turnout of nearly 89 percent of the voting eligible population. The election did not twist or turn based on the atoll country’s relevance in the shifting geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, but on long-growing unease with its autocratic direction under Yameen.

Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, who was imprisoned by Yameen and now lives in self-imposed exile, congratulated Solih:

Mohamed Nasheed@MohamedNasheed

Congratulations to President Elect @ibusolih. You have done an extremely good service to not only to the people of Maldives, but also to freedom loving people everywhere. Democracy is a historical inevitability.

September 23, 2018
The geopolitical angle, however, is there and Solih’s victory has been enthusiastically welcomed by both the United States and India. Both countries, unusually, released statements congratulating Solih on his victory as soon as the preliminary results—monitored by nongovernmental organizations and watchdog groups—showed that he had won. Normally, states wait for a formal notice from the electoral commission. In this case, it spoke to the urgency with which New Delhi and Washington viewed the outcome—and the need to give Solih an early sense of external ballast should Yameen have tried to contest the result. (He conceded defeat about 36 hours after Solih’s victory first became apparent.)

Moreover, the outcome of the election should not fall prey to oversimplification with regard to the role of China. The China Communications Construction Company, a state-owned enterprise, will remain involved in major projects, including the landmark Sinamalé bridge to connect the overcrowded capital island of Malé with the nearby island of Hulhule, which hosts the country’s international airport. Solih won’t hit the ground running with a pushback on China-backed projects like Mahathir in Malaysia.

Finally, divisions remain in the country and the Maldives won’t turn into a pristine democracy overnight. As JJ Robinson explains in the Guardian, the “international community has a rare second chance to help the Maldives make a peaceful democratic transition.”

Bottom Line: A surprise election result in the Maldives speaks to a democratic resurgence in the country, with implications for Indian Ocean geopolitics.

Northeast Asia. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, fresh out of his third summit with Kim Jong Un, was in New York to sell progress on denuclearization to the Trump administration. The South Korean president claimed, at a press conference with U.S. President Donald J. Trump, that “North Korea's decision to relinquish its nuclear program has been officialized to a degree that not even those within North Korea can reverse.” Moon had one task in New York: to defibrillate the moribund U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process. That would require selling that what he accomplished with the Pyongyang Declaration represented concrete progress toward denuclearization of the sort imagined by Trump’s deputes, including Mike Pompeo, who continues to seek the “final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea. Unfortunately, North Korea is still far from agreeing to any of that. The technical concession to shut down the Sohae Satellite Launching Center (Tongchang-ri) and its associated facilities isn’t nothing, but it’s insufficient to prevent the growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

If you’ve 30 minutes to spare and a set of headphones, Prashanth Parameswaran and I go over our impressions of the fifth inter-Korean summit in a new podcast: Listen here.

Bottom Line: Moon has succeeded in his mission to revive the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process. The United States and North Korea will likely have a second summit before the end of the year.

Don’t Miss It: At the United Nations Security Council, Trump accused China of election interference, a serious and uncorroborated charge with any specific evidence. The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi explores what Trump may have meant.

South Asia.

If you blinked, you might have missed it, but for a brief moment this month, it looked like India and Pakistan might actually return to some kind of high-level talks. Of course, that much was predictable given the recent change of leadership in Pakistan. Imran Khan, in his inaugural address to the country, had said that he would take “two steps” toward India if New Delhi took even “one step” toward Pakistan. With the foreign ministers of both countries slated for trips to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, it seemed to make sense to attempt some kind of bilateral engagement at a high-level.

…and then everything fell apart. India called off a scheduled meeting in New York between its external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, and Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, less than 24 hours after it was scheduled. The decision came after the mutilated body of an Indian Border Security Force soldier was found in the Jammu region of Kashmir, a hot zone for militant infiltration.

The killings “confirm that Pakistan will not mend its ways,” the Indian statement, released by the Ministry of External Affairs, said. “The true face of the new prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has been revealed to the world.” With particularly over-the-top flourish, the statement condemned the “evil agenda of Pakistan.”

The entire episode was perhaps predictable. We’ve seen previous newcomers to the prime minister’s office in Islamabad attempt a bold and early rapprochement with New Delhi, only to be derailed. Indian analysts have cited the attack to Pakistan’s military, which maintains close ties with militant proxies in Kashmir and activates them as necessary. It also suggests that, with a general election around the corner in India for 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party may see it fit to drum up nationalism over the Pakistan issue.

Bottom Line: Talks between India and Pakistan aren’t any closer than they were before, especially after an abortive attempt in September.

Southeast Asia.

I had a chance in New York last week to catch the visiting prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, who was in town, like so many other world leaders, for the United Nations General Assembly. The 93-year-old Mahathir is as spry and prone to plain-talking as ever. Speaking at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mahathir provided his perspective on Asian geopolitics, discussing China’s rise, the role of India and Japan, Donald Trump, and much more. I was live-tweeting the event; the tweets start here if you’d like to catch some of the highlights:

Ankit Panda@nktpnd

Mahathir Mohammad at @CFR_org. First question on Chinese economic influence in #Malaysia. "Previous government borrowed too much money."

September 26, 2018
The big takeaways?

  • The “promise” to the Malaysian people to transfer power to Anwar Ibrahim in 2-3 years stands.

  • Donald Trump does not “know much about Asia.” His message to Trump was to be “more consistent.”

  • Relations with China remain good, despite the headlines about project cancellations. Mahathir underlined that his government has told China that it was Najib (the former prime minister, now under investigation for corruption) that was the problem.

  • Both India and Japan provide important balances to China, in Malaysia’s view. Japan, interestingly, according to Mahathir, is sometimes close to the U.S. in a way that is “not healthy.”

  • On the South China Sea, Mahathir was averse to seeing foreign warships used as a tool of policy (a not-so-veiled reference to U.S. freedom of navigation operations). He argued that China had not stifled military or civilian navigation in the South China Sea, which isn’t entirely true.

  • The whopper from Mahathir—and something sure to make upcoming ASEAN fall summitry tense—was his indicating of support for a potential UN-sanctioned force in Myanmar given the plight of the Rohingya. While saying that he believed noninterference in other countries’ affairs was an important principle, Mahathir carved out an exception for “genocide.”

Bottom Line: Some of Mahathir’s tendencies to move Malaysia away from China may have been overstated.

Don’t Miss It: With Cambodia’s Hun Sen in New York, the country’s floundering democracy has come under international scrutiny. The Diplomat’s David Hutt reports on opposition protests in New York and the conspicuous absence of Sam Rainsy.

Central Asia.

Warming relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan appear to be having an effect on connectivity projects in Central Asia. As Catherine Putz writes over at The Diplomat, “The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) railway line looks to be a casualty of warming Tajik-Uzbek relations as officials suggested recently that Tajikistan would postpone its work on the line.”

The TAT project has been among multiple land-based connectivity projects that have been talked up over the years, but isn’t the most practical option for Tajikistan. Uzbekistan, in particular, given its location, is critical to allowing the southern states of Afghanistan and Tajikistan connect to the rest of the region. As Putz notes, “Rail, or more specifically, the blocking of Tajik rail traffic, has featured as frequent Uzbek political weapon over the years.” Now that Tajikistan may be able to proceed with a rail route through Uzbek territory, the appeal of the TAT is considerably lower.

But relations can be fickle. Even while Uzbekistan’s current trajectory under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a reformer, appears stable, there’s no telling what could bring back the trouble that led Dushanbe toward the TAT in the first place.

Bottom Line: Improving Tajik-Uzbek ties are replacing old connectivity thinking in Central Asia with possible new projects.

Don’t Miss It: As of 2019, Turkmenistan will be rolling back subsidy provisions that would have guaranteed free electricity, gas, drinking water, and salt to all citizens. Some things are just too good to last.

Asian Defense. 

CAATSA (the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) has bit China. Recently, the U.S. Department of State announced that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Equipment Development Department (EDD), which is part of the Chinese Military Commission, would be sanctioned under the act for taking delivery of S-400 Triumf air defense systems and the Sukhoi Su-35S multirole fighter.

The decision has sparked a minor firestorm in U.S.-China relations—especially as it coincided with the Trump administration’s decision to move ahead with a $200 billion round of additional tariffs on Chinese goods.

Elsewhere in Asia, CAATSA continues to be an issue. My colleague Franz-Stefan Gady explains the state of play with the United States and India:

Meanwhile, the U.S. and India are continuing to discuss the latter’s intended procurement of five S-400 regiments and a possible CAATSA sanctions waiver. This year’s U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) grants the Trump administration authority to waive mandatory sanctions under CAATSA in certain circumstances pertaining to Russian legacy military systems that costs less than $15 million. The S-400 contract between China and Russia is expected to be signed during a summit meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for October 5.

The CAATSA decision comes shortly after China’s participation in the Vostok 2018 war games in eastern Russia.

Bottom Line: U.S.-China ties take a hit over the decision to sanction a CMC-linked entity over deliveries of Russian military hardware.

Don’t Miss It: Adding to woes in U.S.-China ties, the Trump administration approved a possible sale of military aviation replacement parts to Taiwan. While less significant than the $1 billion+ arms package approved last year, the decision won’t help matters.


A little something for any Canadian readers: Tim Hortons is seeking to take legal action against ‘Tim Hottens’, an Indian restaurant using its branding. Check out the logo:

Tim Hottens IndiaAlso, I’ll be in Ferrara, Italy, next week, speaking at the Internazionale festival on Korean Peninsula issues and China. I hope to see some of you there.

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at either and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.