Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid met Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan on Thursday during his first official visit to China.
The pair discussed “various aspects of the bilateral relations” at the Ziguang Pavilion and Shahid “applauded President Xi and the government of China for bringing economic growth and social development for the people of China,” the Maldives foreign ministry said.
The foreign minister reiterated commitment to the One-China Policy and the vice president acknowledged the importance of Maldives as a partner in the Belt and Road Initiative. “Vice President Wang and Minister Shahid stated the importance of strengthening cooperation between the two countries for mutually beneficial development goals,” it added.
Shahid is also due to meet his counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi before concluding the visit on Friday.
On Wednesday, Shahid met top officials of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Beijing Urban Construction Group.
He briefed AIIB Vice President D Jagatheesa Pandian about the current administration’s economic agenda and exchanged views on enhancing cooperation, according the foreign ministry. “Vice President Pandian assured the support of AIIB in assisting the government of Maldives towards achieving its development agenda,” it added.
In his meeting with Chairman Chen Daihua from the Beijing Urban Construction Group, the pair discussed ongoing projects and the Chinese contractor expressed interest “to collaborate with the Maldives in future development projects as well.”
BUCG was enlisted during the previous administration to build a new runway at the Velana International Airport with a US$373 million loan secured from the Chinese EXIM Bank. During his five-year term, former president Abdulla Yameen forged a close partnership with China, which financed key developmental projects such the construction of a bridge to connect the capital with the airport island.
The foreign minister’s maiden visit to China nine months after assuming office has drawn criticism from opposition lawmakers.
The absence of a senior official to welcome Shahid upon his arrival in Beijing last Tuesday was indicative of weakened diplomatic ties, MP Ahmed Shiyam tweeted. The government was desperate for foreign aid and Shahid went to China with “the begging bowl,” the Progressive Party of Maldives deputy leader told the press.
The foreign minister meeting the Chinese-led investment bank after criticising the former administration’s decision to become a founding member “shows that this government has no aim,” contended MP Mohamed Saeed, former economic development minister.
– “Land grab” –
In July, Shahid praised Sino-Maldives ties and backed the “mutually beneficial” partnership to grow. The Maldivian people were “deeply appreciative” of key developmental projects financed by China, he said. But the conciliatory stance has been at odds with persistent criticism from Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed’s about China grabbing land and dragging the Maldives into a debt trap.
Speaking at the Indian Ocean Conference earlier this month, the former president declared that China has “grabbed more land than the East India Company” during British colonisation.
The “standard practice” involves a partnership with an autocratic government, he explained.
“Get hold of a government, buy up a parliament, change the laws, be able to find unsolicited contracts, inflate the price of the contract to the extent that the business plans fails, give commercial loans, and then of course you will not be able to pay it back. When you can’t pay it back, they ask for equity, and with equity, you relinquish sovereignty, and therefore the peace of the Indian Ocean. I am specifically referring to China,” he said.
The bulk of loans granted by the Chinese EXIM Bank to the Maldives were designed for land grab, he contended, adding that Chinese investments must be beneficial, awarded through “transparent tendering processes” and subject to “democratic oversight.”
Nasheed has also been engaged in a Twitter spat with Chinese ambassador Zhang Lizhong about the scale of the debt owed to China. Earlier this month, the ambassador disputed Nasheed’s claim that the cost of social housing units under construction by a Chinese contractor was well above the market rate in Malé.
Asked about the spat prior to his departure for Beijing, Shahid told Sun Online that the present administration allows for a plurality of views and differences of opinion as it came to power promising democratic governance. “So the government making statements about persons who have different views about the Chinese government and its policies would be contrary to the type of governance we were promoting,” he said.
In an interview with local news site Avas published on Wednesday, Chinese ambassador Lizhong called the land grab and debt trap accusations “unacceptable” and groundless.
“I have personally met with the Speaker Nasheed two times. We have exchanged views on a number of issues relating to our relations. And I can tell you that Mr. Nasheed has given many positive remarks on our relations on tourism, investment, climate change and solar energy. He gave me the impression that he is supportive of this relationship,” the ambassador said.
“Even when we talk about China-Maldives relations during his presidency we enjoyed good development. China conducted a number of assistance programs in Maldives. He has made his contribution to the relationship between China and Maldives and I sincerely hope he could continue to do so. I would say that if Mr. Speaker can publicly clarify his positions on these friendly and beneficial relationships, it would help the public understand the things better.”
Arrived in Beijing on my first official visit to China, since assuming office. Looking forward for fruitful discussions with Foreign Minister Wang in accelerating #Maldives–#China relationship for the benefit of the peoples of our two countries. pic.twitter.com/dvVFPQeWWh
— Abdulla Shahid 🎈 (@abdulla_shahid) September 17, 2019
— Amb. Zhang Lizhong (@AmbassadorZhang) September 11, 2019
The cooperation between China and Maldives is in the interests of the two peoples, which cannot be denigrated by one-sided individual remarks. The so-called “land grabbing” and colonization are not in our genes.
— Amb. Zhang Lizhong (@AmbassadorZhang) September 5, 2019