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More Belt and Road Backlash

The Maldives turns away from China and back toward democracy.


The Editorial Board

Sept. 24, 2018 7:45 p.m. ET

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen conceded defeat in elections and said he would arrange a smooth transition for president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Sept. 24.PHOTO: HANDOUT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The Maldives—a small Indian Ocean archipelago nation—usually doesn’t receive much attention, but its strategic location gives it outsize importance. The result of Sunday’s presidential election offers good news about security and democracy in Asia.

On Monday President Abdulla Yameen conceded defeat to Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a longtime member of parliament. Some 90% of eligible voters turned out. Mr. Solih won with 58% of the vote after promising to restore democracy and improve relations with the West. He also vowed to take a harder line against Chinese investment.

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The Maldives democratic experiment is a decade old, and Mr. Yameen went far to undermine it. Earlier this year he declared a state of emergency, detained members of the judiciary and stifled protests. The U.S. and India, the Maldives traditional partner, criticized him. But China defended Mr. Yameen, who had embraced President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative that invests in public projects on terms favorable to Beijing. The Maldives’ proximity to major sea shipping lanes is a strategic prize.

Alarmists say climate change means the Maldives will be underwater soon, but predatory loans could drown the nation’s finances first. China began investing heavily in the country’s public works in recent years. A 2017 International Monetary Fund report found that its debt-to-GDP ratio “rose nearly 11.5 percentage points from 2014-16.” Its external debt could hit 51.2% of GDP by 2021 thanks to Chinese projects. The IMF says servicing this debt will cost about $92 million a year for four years, while the government takes in only about $1 billion a year.

Loading weaker countries with unsustainable debt is a habit of Belt and Road. Once projects default, China seizes strategic public works. Sri Lanka, owing billions to state-controlled Chinese firms, signed over a port last year—and other countries noticed.

Strategic issues aside, Sunday’s vote is above all a victory for the Maldives’ self-government. Voters rejected an attempt to hijack democracy. India and the West should now help the new government follow through on its promise to become less reliant on China’s not-so-golden shackles.


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