Zhang Lizhong, the new Chinese ambassador to the Maldives, presented his credentials to President Abdulla Yameen at a ceremony Tuesday morning.
According to the president’s office, Yameen “assured full commitment to bolster existing bilateral relations” and expressed gratitude for the development partnership, highlighting flagship “mega projects” to build the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge and upgrade the main international airport.
“He firmly reiterated the government’s commitment to the One-China Policy, the policy that endorses China as the legitimate and rightful representative of the aspirations of all Chinese people,” the president’s office said.
“The president also expressed appreciation for China’s cooperation with the Maldives in advancing mutual interests on various international fora, for the common benefit of the two countries and their peoples.”
Zhang Lizhong meanwhile “conveyed assurances to collaborate closely with the Government of Maldives to enhance the cooperation between China and the Maldives through increasing trade and investment as well as increasing the number of Chinese tourists to the Maldives.”
The new ambassador began his term in the wake of strong criticism of Sino-Maldives ties from exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed during a visit to India.
Asked about a recent border dispute between India and China, Nasheed said the Maldives should take the giant neighbour’s side based on historical ties and assistance during crises.
“It is wrong for China to suddenly splash money and ask for support,” he told the Economic Times.
“Many of these projects resulted in massive corruption…compared to China lines of credit offered by India are reasonable and proper tendering process is followed before contract is extended to a particular business firm for a project. This has been my experience when I was in power,”
The convicted opposition leader contended that the Maldives is ensnared in a “debt trap” with more than 70 percent of foreign debt owed to China. The infrastructure projects are financed with “outright commercial [loans],” he claimed.
The Chinese EXIM Bank loaned US$373 million to finance the expansion of the Velana International Airport and US$66 million for the construction of the bridge to connect the capital with a new urban centre under development in Hulhumalé.
“Soon we would be in a situation where more than 40 percent of our budget would be [spent] on servicing these debts,” Nasheed told WION.
He told The Hindu that the Chinese contracts were “born illegally” and suggested that a new administration would pursue arbitration processes to terminate the deals.
He also opposed the Maldives’ participation in the Chinese ‘One Belt – One Road Initiative,’ a massive campaign to finance infrastructure projects to connect China with countries in Asia and Africa.
“This idea of mega-development projects is in any case very outdated, very 1940s-1950s. We would prefer to focus on microeconomic issues, help build incomes and livelihoods of people. There is a tendency to equate concrete to development. In Sri Lanka their big roads don’t see even 20 percent capacity filled,” he said.
Nasheed also warned that the arrival of three Chinese naval warships in the Maldives for a four-day visit on Sunday was unprecedented and could indicate a future military presence.
“Strategic infrastructure often does facilitate military use. So it is very possible that President Yameen is offering [China] more than just infrastructure projects,” he said.
But the Maldivian ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed, told the paper that the Chinese naval supply ship Changxingdao had come with fresh water supplies during the Malé water crisis in December 2014, noting that India had also dispatched two naval warships with supplies and filtration equipment.
“India is well aware that there is no military presence of any country in the Maldives, and knows better than anyone who is where in the Indian Ocean,” the ambassador said.
The Chang Chun, Jing Zhou and Chao Hu is in the Maldives as part of a 23-nation tour.
According to the Maldives National Defence Force, the Chinese sailors will visit the Girifushi training centre as well as some area headquarters and take part in joint training exercises and friendly sports games.
Accompanied by the new ambassador, the commander of the goodwill fleet of China’s People Liberation Army, Rear Admiral Shen Hao paid a courtesy call on Vice President Abdulla Jihad on Tuesday.
“The Commander expressed his gratitude for the warm welcome extended to the delegation and the crew of the fleet, and expressed the importance given by the President of China, His Excellency Mr. Xi Jinping, to further consolidate the friendly relations existing between the two countries,” the president’s office said.