As the news of the surprise result of the Maldives Presidential election rolled in from the Indian Ocean on Monday morning, there was a sense of understandable glee in the Indian foreign office. "We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest,” the external affairs ministry tweeted early today. Joint opposition candidate Solih shocked President Abdulla Yameen, who was perceived as pro-China, by a huge margin. Yameen has accepted defeat. The result is particularly surprising, as over the past few years, the outgoing President was accused of crushing dissent in the archipelago, leaving very little space for the opposition to operate.
The defeat is seen as one more in the ring of political reverses China has faced this year in Asia. It began with the defeat of Najib Razak to Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia. It has seen Pakistan, the most loyal of Beijing's allies, wonder if it should continue with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. (Saudi Arabia is now expected to join the project as the third economic partner), and now the results in Maldives. But this is unlikely to change the nature of China's equation with these countries.
Unlike the Western European powers in the first half of 20th century and the US in the second half, China, like most Asian countries, has a pragmatic view of the internal political set up of its allies. Europe and the US made it a point to establish in power combinations whose loyalties they felt sanguine about. China has shown no such qualms and has instead been agreeable to do business with whoever was in power in the foreign capital. This is one of the key reasons why Beijing has found agreeable ears in these countries to move into close financial relations with China. This is the reason why it has allowed Saudi Arabia to move into CPEC despite the kingdoms’ position with the US. Also note, that in Africa, China is now doing fine business developing Djibouti, which has been ceded by UAE, Saudi Arabia’s all-weather friend. The Emirates has instead moved to develop the port of Berbera in Somaliland.
This is a core difference in China’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the other global powers. It does not let the political changes abroad affect its business interests. This is also one of the key reasons why it has carried on with far less vicissitudes in the politically charged Nepal, compared with India’s tortuous relationship, and is also now reaching out to Bhutan. In Maldives too, one can expect that once the new government under Solih will have settled in power, China will come calling with its unfinished business deals. It is one of the reasons why four months after the new government in Kuala Lumpur has come to power, despite the noises, Malaysia has not begun to redraw its commitment to Belt and Road Initiative.