SMALL COUNTRY, BIG STORY: MALDIVES EDITION, VOL. 2

SMALL COUNTRY, BIG STORY: MALDIVES EDITION, VOL. 2

Last weekend, there was a presidential election in the Maldives, a nation of about 400,000 people who live on 1,192 islands and 26 coral atolls in the Indian Ocean. Little attention was paid before the vote because observers, both inside and outside the country, assumed that President Abdulla Yameen -- a strongman who has worked hard to build relations with China -- would win, even if he had to cheat.


Surprise: He lost. Another surprise: He accepted defeat, perhaps because the result wasn’t even close.

Voters who cast ballots for opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih were probably motivated mainly by frustration with corruption in Mr. Yameen’s government and his firm crackdowns on dissent. The US and EU had even threatened sanctions in response to his habit of jailing critics.

But the broader interest in this story centers on the growing regional rivalry between China and India. As we wrote in February, the Maldives have historically allied with India, but Yameen had tilted the country toward China to win investment in infrastructure, particularly in support of tourism, an economic lifeline for this small country. Most of those tourists now come from China. Beijing, for its part, sees the Maldives as a key piece of its broader strategy to establish friendly ports for its ships – both commercial and military – across the Indian Ocean.

India, fearful of expanded Chinese influence, had backed opposition candidate Solih. Before the vote, exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed, pushed from power by Yameen in 2012, called on New Delhi to intervene to prevent the current president from stealing the vote. Some in India urged their government to answer the call. (Back in February, Nasheed requested an outright Indian invasion.) The opposition’s resounding victory rendered all of that unnecessary.

But before we score this a lasting win for India, remember that China still has long-term advantages here. The Maldives still need Chinese money and Chinese tourists to grow its economy, and Beijing will surely try to use that as leverage for its broader Indian Ocean aims.

And don’t forget there’s no nation on Earth in greater danger from rising sea levels caused by climate change. According to National Geographic, the average elevation in the Maldives is just four feet above sea level, and the country’s highest peak stands just under eight feet above the water’s edge. We’re only half kidding when we wonder if the Chinese, who are pretty good at raising land from the sea elsewhere, might have a solution…

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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