NEW DELHI: China’s flagship infrastructure project in the Maldives, a bridge linking capital Male with the airport island, has again brought into focus the widening gulf between India and its Indian Ocean neighbour. India chose to stay away from the inauguration on Thursday of what is officially known as the Sinamale Bridge with its ambassador Akhilesh Mishra not attending the event.
“He had been invited by our government but he didn’t come,” said a top Maldivian government official.
Indian officials chose not to comment on the issue. Mishra’s decision to skip the inauguration, which took place in the presence of a representative of Chinese President Xi Jinping and was marked by Chinese fireworks, was justified later with envoys of other countries being allegedly treated shabbily by President Abdulla Yameen’s security staff at the event.
The Maldivian opposition alleged that only the Chinese ambassador’s car was allowed to drive up to the venue. “Ambassadors of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh boycotted the bridge inauguration event as their cars were stopped by Yameen’s security and they were asked to walk. Only the Chinese ambassador’s car was allowed to pass up to the venue. Such an insult to traditional friends” tweeted MP and joint opposition spokesperson Ahmed Mahloof.
Ambassadors of Sri Lanks and Bangladhesh boycotted the bridge inauguration event as their cars were stopped by Yameen’s security and they were asked to walk.
Only Chinese Ambassador’s car was allowed to pass up to the venue.
Such an insult to traditional friends.
— Ahmed Mahloof (@AhmedMahloof) August 31, 2018
Yameen went on to describe the $200 million bridge as “the biggest achievement in our diplomatic history”.
The president who is accused of having undermined all state institutions, even jailing many of his political opponents, in the run-up to the elections later this month believes the bridge has further invigorated his chances of returning to power. Also known as China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, the bridge was built with, according to Male, a grant of $116 million by China. Apart from the grant, Beijing also provided $72 million as a loan for the 1.4 km bridge.
The financing of the bridge has sparked fears of Male getting enmeshed further in Chinese debt net. The main opposition party, MDP, has already alleged that there is “huge corruption” involved in the deal for the bridge which is meant to end congestion in Male.
India has been alarmed by the manner in which the cost of the project shot up in the past few years. A Delhi-based western diplomat who handles the Maldives said even the “official cost of the project” $200 million was almost thrice that of the estimate prepared by former president Mohamed Nasheed government in 2011.
“Given the lack of transparency and parliamentary scrutiny in government affairs, no one really knows the actual cost of the project … some people say it may even have crossed $300 million,” he said.
A preliminary survey carried out by overseas experts in 2011, while noting the viability of the project, had estimated a total cost between $70 million to $100 million.
Also one could look at other projects, he said, connected with the Bridge, for which Male is paying out of its own budget at twice or thrice the actual cost.
“If one also includes airport and housing projects (in return for 2500 social housing units funded by government to government loans), Male has handed over almost entire Hulumale construction work (including several thousand housing units) to Chinese companies without any bidding. Effectively, Maldives is giving to Chinese far more than what it has received as a loan to be repaid with commercial interest,” said the diplomat.
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