Three Muslim-majority Asian countries have elected leaders who campaigned on a promise to temper China's growing influence, but analysts say reducing the foothold of the world's second-largest economy won't be easy because of the billions of dollars in development projects that are already under way.
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The surprising elections in recent months of nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, cricketer Imran Khan in Pakistan and longtime opposition lawmaker Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the Maldives buck a regional trend toward authoritarianism, and could present an obstacle for Chinese President Xi Jinping's hallmark "Belt and Road Initiative" to build ports, highways and other trade-related infrastructure.
Countries including India, the U.S. and Japan are concerned that China's massive initiative is part of an effort to build a China-centric world order in which all roads lead to Beijing and their own influence is eroded.
Xi said in a late August closed-door event with officials in Beijing to mark the project's fifth anniversary that it was about business, not geopolitics.
"The projects are not free aid from China, but an economic cooperation, a kind of business deal," said Zhao Gancheng, a Shanghai Institute of Foreign Studies researcher.
New governments in Malaysia, Pakistan and the Maldives are free to decide they no longer want Chinese investment in these projects, Zhao said, but they should be prepared to compensate China accordingly. How newly elected governments could buy their way out of China's grasp remains to be seen.
Malaysia's former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad led an opposition alliance to a stunning victory in May 9 elections, ushering in the country's first change of power since independence from Britain in 1957.
It led to a political earthquake for Malaysia, sweeping aside the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose reputation was tarnished by a monumental corruption scandal and the imposition of an unpopular sales tax that hurt many of his coalition's poor rural supporters.
Mahathir, 93, was credited with modernizing Malaysia during his 22-year rule that ended in 2003 but was also known as a heavy-handed leader who imprisoned opponents and subjugated the courts. Angered by the graft scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund, Mahathir emerged from political retirement and joined the opposition to oust Najib, his former protege.
Mahathir, the world's oldest elected leader, has reopened investigations into 1MDB and banned Najib and his wife from traveling abroad. Najib is facing 32 charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption, abuse of power and money laundering. He has denied any wrongdoing and his trial is to start next year.
Mahathir's government has also axed China-backed energy pipelines and a rail project along peninsular Malaysia's eastern coast as part of efforts to reduce national debt that it said worsened under Najib's rule. The projects were part of "Belt and Road" but Mahathir said the deals struck by Najib were too costly and unfair to Malaysia.
While in opposition, Pakistan's new prime minister, former cricket star Imran Khan, questioned whether a "Belt and Road" partnership with China benefited Pakistan. He promised the contracts would be made public, something the new government has yet to do.
He also promised greater transparency moving forward on the multibillion-dollar project known as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor Project, which includes an ambitious cross-country road system linking Pakistan's Arabian Sea port of Gwadar to China.
The multi-level project was undertaken by Pakistan's previous government, although little is known about the details of the contracts with China and the debt Pakistan would incur as a result of these deals.
Khan promised to reveal all to Pakistanis, who have watched with a mix of enthusiasm and caution the development that has taken place in recent years as four-lane superhighways open up linking northern areas to other parts of the country.
As well as road construction, Pakistan's previous government also negotiated agreements with Chinese power companies to supply much needed electricity to energy-starved Pakistan. However, criticism has been loud about the terms of the agreements and the revolving debt costs to Pakistan.
Khan's earlier stridency has softened since July elections propelled him to power. In one of his first speeches to the nation as prime minister, Khan said Pakistan had much to learn from China, praising its economic development and an anti-corruption drive, which was the central plank of his Pakistan Insaf (Justice) Party platform.
Zhao, the Chinese researcher, was incredulous that Khan would oppose Chinese investment, given the massive amounts of money poured into Pakistan. "No Pakistan leader would risk damaging the country's relations with China," Zhao said.
In the Maldives, an island nation southwest of India with around 400,000 people, Solih declared victory in Sunday's presidential election, an unexpected result against an incumbent government accused of suppression and the jailing of political opponents.
Outgoing Maldives President Abdul Yameen Gayoom traveled to Beijing last year to sign a free-trade deal that eliminates most tariffs on Maldivian exports, primarily fish, and opens the island nation to Chinese goods and services, including in finance, health care and tourism.
China is already the Maldives' primary source of tourists, whose spending largely drives the economy, and Beijing is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in an airport expansion, housing development and other projects.
China considers Maldives a key cog in "Belt and Road" projects following along ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia.
The Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank, estimates China's loans to Maldives total at least $1.3 billion, a quarter of the island nation's gross domestic product. The country is considered by the World Bank and the IMF to be at high risk of debt distress because of its vulnerability to outside shocks.
"The kind of debts the Chinese have subjected the Maldivians to, the effects of it will continue to linger on and Maldivians will have to continue to deal with it. We have seen it in Sri Lanka. Even if you have a change in government the dependency on China continues," said Ashok Behuria, a South Asia policy expert at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
Solih's friend and the leader of his party, former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, has described China's growing influence as a land grab in the guise of investments in island development.
China congratulated Solih on his victory and said it would like the new Maldivian government to uphold the previous administration's policies toward China, including the free trade agreement.
While campaigning, Solih criticized the agreement, complaining that Parliament was only given five minutes to review a several-hundred-page document.
"He has been quite furious about the money that's been said to have been lost to corruption," said Hamid Abdul Gafoor, an opposition spokesman and former Maldives lawmaker now living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, adding "Our country's under financial straits because the debt is very high, and so that is a concern."
Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.