The Maldives’ debt to China needs to be carefully reviewed and managed, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said according to remarks published Sunday by Indian media, adding he was “sure” China would respect the will of the people.
China has financed infrastructure projects with loans in excess of a billion dollars, sparking accusations of a debt trap and a land-grab.
Although the president-elect, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has pledged to review contracts he says ongoing projects will not be scrapped.
Gayoom, who is one of four leaders in the opposition alliance, said the Maldives valued China’s support.
“We value the support China has given for our development. However, we are concerned at the level of debt we have incurred in recent years, and feel this needs to be carefully reviewed and managed.
“I am sure that China would respect the will of the Maldivian people,” he said.
China previously appeared to threaten anyone or anything that might jeopardise its investments in the Maldives.
“If certain forces wantonly harm China’s interests out of political purposes, the Chinese side will firmly oppose it and resolutely protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises,” a foreign ministry spokesman said last month.
According to Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House, the three largest Chinese projects in the country are worth more than US$1.5 billion – or 40 percent of the country’s GDP.
“This will inevitably cause repayment problems, as visible in Sri Lanka, another country deep in debt to China,” Gateway House said in a report published February.
President Abdulla Yameen’s courtship of China – through funding and a free trade agreement – unsettled the Maldives’ traditional ally India.
A breakdown in democracy, fuelled by a 45-day state of emergency and a crackdown on the opposition, exacerbated the situation as did an apparent visa tit-for-tat.
Yameen, who is Gayoom’s half-brother, was thumped in last month’s presidential election by more than 38,000 votes and his defeat was seen as a blow to China.
Gayoom said the downturn in Maldives-India ties was not long-term.
“India did play a positive role, and along with other international partners, did exert pressure towards restoration of democracy.
“Keeping the Maldivian issue alive in international fora did result in putting pressure on the Yameen regime.
“I do not see the events of the last few years having a lasting impact (on bilateral ties)…I do not think these bumps and turbulence would impact decades of (our) India first policy.
“I am confident that the new government will work towards achieving this. We will be sensitive towards the concerns of India as well as of other friends,” said Gayoom.
Photo of Sinamalé Bridge: Hussain Waheed/Mihaaru