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Maldives celebrates opening of China-built bridge as two countries vow to further strengthen ties

Maldives on Thursday night put on a spectacular show in its capital city of Male as officials and residents celebrate the opening of a brand-new bridge that has come to be known as the project of the century in the small nation on the Indian Ocean and a hallmark for the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

As the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which was built and largely funded by China, officially went into operation, officials from the two countries vowed to further strengthen bilateral ties and cooperation and set up a global example of how countries in different sizes should treat each other with respect.

As the scathing temperature cooled and the night fell in Male, local residents, many in traditional dress, started gathering at a park near the bridge to attend the opening ceremony of the bridge and become a part of what local officials describe as a moment of dream coming true.

“Tonight, we celebrate the dawn of a new era for Maldives. The dawn where Maldivians see their future unfolding into an age of progress and tranquility. The dawn where dreams can finally become reality, hopes prosper and life more tenable,” Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, visibly emotional, told an audience of thousands of people who cheered passionately.

Twice in his speech at the ceremony, Yameen switched to Chinese and said: “Thank you, President Xi Jinping! Thank you, the people of China!” That drew applause from the Chinese delegation and workers.

Construction for the bridge was first agreed between China and Maldives during an official visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the South Asian nation in September 2014. After breaking ground in March 2016, construction for the bridge completed in July.

As part of the agreement, the project, which has an estimated investment of 1.26 billion yuan ($184.44 million), was largely funded by China through direct aid and discount loans to Maldives, which together account for 91.8 percent of the total investment. The Maldivian government picked up 8.2 percent of the cost, according to a statement from the contractor CCCC Second Harbour Engineering Co, a unit of China Communications Construction Co.

“This bridge represents the new symbol for China-Maldives friendship… China has always offered help and support for Maldives social and economic development,” Wang Xiaotao, a Chinese government’s special envoy and head of the China International Development and Cooperation Agency, said at the ceremony.

Tangible results

The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which links the Maldivian capital to its neighboring islands of Hulhumale and Hulhule, where the country’s largest airport is located, is the first sea-crossing bridge for Maldives and crucial for the country’s long-term economic development, which faces lagging infrastructure and lack of investment for improving it.

“My resolve was to fit-in the most crucial but missing piece of development strategy of Maldives,” Yameen said, “thousands of people, crossing 1 km of water everyday several times, kept us hoping, dreaming, and dreaming big. Yet it was thought to be beyond the economic and engineering resources available to the Maldives.”

Yameen said the bridge will help people cross the sea to Hulhumale, which is being developed into a modern city – “the city of hope, a new ‘Madinah’ for our youth.”

“I’m just enjoying the moment because it’s so beautiful,” Ali Ameen, a 20-year old young man living in Male, told the Global Times after the ceremony. Asked how he felt about the bridge, Ameen choked up: “I can’t explain. But thank you so much.”

Ameen said that travelling between the capital and the islands were hard because it had been relying on ships, which during rough weather, is impossible. “Now we have a bridge,” he said.

The bridge is aimed at easing crowdedness in the capital city, which has about 133,000 people living in just 5.8 square kilometer land, and boost economic growth by connecting the capital with the airport more directly and conveniently.

While the ceremony, which featured both Chinese and Maldivian traditional performance and a huge firework show on the bridge, drew thousands to the site, others watched afar from the rooftops to blocked-off streets.

“I almost cried when I saw the fireworks. It’s not often we see such big firework. It’s really awesome!” said Shiuma who watched the fireworks with colleagues at the balcony of the hotel they work, where they had a viewing party.

Another employee of the hotel, who was from Sri Lanka and did not give his name, told the Global Times earlier that he hops business will improve after the bridge opens. “We are the closest to the airport so I hope more people will come stay here. Maybe we need some advertising at the airport.”

A new starting point

As locals cheered the opening of the bridge, officials vowed that this is mere the start pointing for future China-Maldives cooperation.

“This new bridge represents a new starting point for China-Maldives relations… and for the two countries to seek more mutually beneficial cooperation going forward and deliver tangible benefits to both of our peoples,” Wang said, noting China will continue to share opportunities with Maldives under the BRI and support social and economic development in Maldives.

“China and Maldives will always respect and support each other and together we set a good example of countries different in size treating each other as equals, seeking win-win cooperation. No matter how the international environment will change, China will always be Maldives good friend and partner,” he said, prompting a round of applause among the audience.

Apart from the bridge, China has also helped Maldives to build roads and other infrastructure projects. And the increased cooperation between China and Maldives has even drawn weary from some countries, most noticeably India, which has traditional seen Maldives under its wing, with some media reports even suggesting that the Maldivian government is handing over its country to China because of debt.

But Maldivian officials strongly pushed back on such claims.

“Being the chair of the public accounts committee for the last four years, being the person who sat in the chair to revive the budget for the last consecutive four years… I could assure the entire international community there is nothing like that happening. China has been very generous,” Ahmed Hihan Hussain, majority leader of the People’s Majlis, Maldives’ Parliament, told the Global Times.

Liang Haiming, chairman of the China Sild Road iValley Research Institute, said that the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, contrary to baseless claims and accusations about Chinese investments overseas, reflects of China’s vision for the BRI: sharing opportunities, joint development and mutual win.

“China proposed the BRI to bring tangible benefits and interests to the people in all the participant countries, including Maldives… [the bridge] represents a constructive step for both BRI and Maldives,” Liang told the Global Times, adding that China is helping these countries using its economic model which pays great importance to infrastructure. “In China, we believe that to prosper, we must build the road first. We hope by helping building roads for these countries, we also help their long-term development.”

Rising capabilities

Behind all the cheering and praises for the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge on Thursday night was also another showcase of China’s rising capabilities in building world-class bridges in harsh conditions and short deadlines.

“The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge fully reflected China’s for capabilities in technology and execution in the area of bridge building,” said a statement from the project’s contractor CCCC Second Harbour Engineering Co, a unit of China Communications Constructions Co, noting that the bridge was built using Chinese technologies, equipment, material as well as standards

“To build such a world-class bridge using our own standards and equipment is an opportunity to promote Chinese standards, technology and equipment on the world stage,” Duoyun, head engineer for the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge project.

Cheng said that his team and construction workers had to overcome unpredictable coral geology, rough waves and hydrodynamic conditions and an extremely tight deadline, and they did.

During the project, CCCC Second Harbour Engineering has gained approval for 11 patent rights to technologies related to construction on coral, according to the statement.

“When we first arrived here, I think many people were skeptical because we were starting something that many had studies for decades and couldn’t do. But overtime they realized that the bridge is finally coming,” said Cheng.

But things were not easy, apart from all the technological difficulties, they were also only given 33 months to complete something that could in normal cases require at least five years, Cheng said.

“It has been so nerve-racking the whole time. I have literally put our lives on the line to make sure we finish this project on time,” Cheng said, “But this is such an important project decided by the two governments, so we had to get it done. There is no other choice. This is not about us. It’s about two countries.”

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