The Maldives’ ambassador to China Mohamed Faisal says that the country would push ahead with Chinese projects and seek more investment from the country, regardless of concerns raised by regional power India.
His statement to South China Morning Post came after Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen lifted a state of emergency on Thursday March 22 after 45 days.
Rivalry between China and India has been playing out amid political turmoil in the Indian Ocean archipelago that erupted in early February. It has seen President Yameen ordering the arrest of two former leaders who staged a coup ahead of a presidential election to be held in September, with one of them seeking military intervention from India, and accusing the government of letting China “buy up” the Maldives.
“We have been caught up in this new way that the world is looking at China,” Faisal said adding: “It is part of a global trend now – a lot of people are seeing what China is doing because in terms of both economically and global power, China is rising.”
“There has been tension and pressure on the Maldives … the talk of debt traps, land grabs in the nation is because we have been working with China. If we were working with India or the US, people would not be talking.”
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the Maldives in 2014, investment from China in the nation has boomed. Apart from the two biggest projects – the airport expansion and a bridge connecting the airport to the capital Male – other Chinese investments range from social housing to island resorts.
The two nations in December agreed to build an ocean observation station, a project initiated by China. It has triggered concerns in India that it might be intended for more than environmental monitoring, and could have military uses too.
China’s growing investments in South Asia have fuelled security worries in India, which sees ports acquired by China in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as representing “a string of pearls” to contain its regional power in the Indian Ocean.
More than 70 per cent of the Maldives’ foreign debt is owed to China, but Faisal said it was not having trouble making payments, adding that the country had some concessional loans it would be able to repay as its tourism market expanded.
Political crisis in the Maldives
Traditionally the archipelago of 1,200 islands and a population of 390,000 Muslims has been firmly in New Delhi’s sphere of influence, with India even intervening in 1988, when a group of mercenaries tried to seize power. Its support helped keep former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in power for three decades and later aided Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader who became famous when he used his low-lying island nation to highlight the risk of rising sea levels and climate change.
But Male began tilting toward Beijing after Yameen, the half-brother of Gayoom, came to power in 2013 by defeating Nasheed.
In 2015, in a trial Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He later received asylum in Britain.
China now sees the Maldives as a crucial part of its “One Belt One Road” project along ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. The initiative envisages building ports, railways and roads to expand trade – and China’s influence – in a swathe across Asia, Africa and Europe.
China’s massive lending to poor nations for such projects has raised concerns about their ability to repay. Already, Beijing has taken over ports it developed in Sri Lanka and Pakistan on long-term leases, according to western media reports.
Nasheed claims China is “buying up the Maldives” under Yameen, accusing the president of opening up the floodgates to Chinese investments with little or no oversight and transparency. China has dismissed those allegations.
Mohan Guruswamy, fellow at the United Service Institution of India in New Delhi, argues that the Maldives is one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries, as well as the smallest Asian country by both land area and population but it is the geography of the Maldives that makes it important in the increasingly contested Arabian Sea part of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives is spread over 1,192 coral islands – with an average elevation of about 1.5m – grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls spanning more than 90,000 sq km, making it a nation of 99 per cent water.
The atoll chain is the visible part of a 960km-long submarine ridge running north to south that makes it almost a wall to navigation from the eastern side of the Indian Ocean into the western side. At the southern and northern part of this island chain are the only two passages through which ships can pass safely. These are the designated sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through which Middle Eastern oil transits to countries like Japan and China. The busier northern SLOC passes between India’s Minicoy Island and the northernmost Maldivian atoll. This geography gives the Maldives a strategic importance far beyond its size and heft.
India’s influence in its neighborhood was dealt a stunning blow recently with the Maldives entering into a free-trade agreement with China signed by President Abdulla Yameen (former president Gayoom’s half-brother) on December 8, 2017, Guruswamy said.
China has opened its pocketbook and has also made the Maldives a component of its sprawling trade and infrastructure strategy, the “Belt and Road Initiative”. In addition Yameen’s government has signed more benign agreements to cooperate in promoting tourism, improving health care and assisting in coping with climate change. Climate change is a very important issue in the Maldives, with the island nation seriously running the risk of becoming a subterranean state in a few decades. China’s expertise in raising islands out of water might serve it in good stead.
Relations between India and Maldives go back several centuries. This relationship grew in the decades following Maldives’ independence from British colonial rule in 1965 and strengthened in the 1980s and 1990s. India supported the authoritarian rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a half-brother of the current president, and enabled him to remain in power for three decades. It even dispatched troops to Maldives to avert a coup attempt to oust Gayoom in 1988.
India’s influence over Maldives began fraying after former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was perceived as India-friendly, was forced to resign in February 2012. An agreement signed by India’s GMR Infrastructure under Nasheed’s tenure for upgrading Male airport was abruptly terminated by his successor in November 2012. The contract was subsequently awarded to a state-owned Chinese company.
According to the Diplomat, until 2011, Maldives was not a priority in China’s foreign policy; Beijing did not even have an embassy in Male. However, Sino-Maldivian relations have grown remarkably since Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the archipelago in September 2014. China’s presence, especially in Maldives’ tourism sector and infrastructure building, has expanded. It has replaced Europe as Maldives’ largest source of tourists. China is funding and building mega infrastructure projects, including the Friendship Bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island and a 1,000-apartment housing project on Hulhumale, a suburb built on reclaimed land. Under the FTA, China and Maldives “would reduce the tariffs of over 95 percent of the goods to zero.
So far India has not responded publicly to Nasheed’s demand that it deploy soldiers to end the crisis but last month, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a carefully worded statement aimed at China.
“We note that China has said that Maldives Government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in Maldives,” he said. “We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in Maldives, instead of doing the opposite.”
“India is in a very difficult position,” said David Brewster, an expert on Indian Ocean strategic affairs at the National Security College in Canberra. “It would like to see Yameen replaced, but it is not sure how to do that. “India’s primary concern is not to restore democracy, but rather to reduce China’s influence in the country.”
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