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‘Political trust’ restored between China and Maldives

The Chinese ambassador hailed Foreign Minister Shahid’s recent visit to Beijing.



Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid’s recent visit to Beijing has restored trust between China and the Maldives, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Lizhong declared on Wednesday.

The current administration came to power after criticising debt owed to China – which financed the former administration’s flagship projects – and quickly moved to repair relations with its geopolitical rival India. The foreign minister’s maiden visit to China came nine months after assuming office.

“This visit has deepened the political trust and Belt and Road cooperation between the two sides which will promote the China-Maldives future-oriented all-round fraternity with cooperative partnership to a whole new level,” Ambassador Lizhong was quoted as saying during a reception held at the Kurumba Resort to mark China’s 70th National Day.

“China-Maldives relationship is now standing at a new starting point,” he added.

During Shahid’s meeting with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi assured him that the development partnership “transcends party differences,” according to a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry.

“It will not be influenced by government changes in the Maldives and does not target at any third party. China’s cooperation with the Maldives aims to improve the well-being of the Maldivian people. It has no political intention, nor does it seek geographical interests.”

Memoranda of Understanding were signed during the visit on strengthening sports, technical and economic cooperation. Both sides committed to “enhance cooperation and coordination between the two countries on bilateral and multilateral issues [and] increase the exchange of views between the two ministries,” the Maldives foreign ministry said.

In July, Shahid praised Sino-Maldives ties and backed the “mutually beneficial” partnership to grow. But the conciliatory stance was at odds with persistent criticism from Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed about China grabbing land and dragging the Maldives into a debt trap. Former president Nasheed also engaged in a Twitter spat with the Chinese ambassador about the scale of the debt owed to China.

The Chinese foreign ministry statement dismissed the debt trap allegations as “groundless” and “nonsense,” as Shahid expressed gratitude for the “generous” support to build infrastructure such as a bridge to connect the capital with the airport island.

“China will not attach political conditions, interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives, but aim to help developing countries including the Maldivian side to enhance their own development capacity,” it added.

The foreign minister’s visit meanwhile drew criticism from the opposition lawmakers. The government was desperate for foreign aid and Shahid went to China with “the begging bowl,” suggested MP Ahmed Shiyam. The foreign minister meeting the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank after criticising the former administration’s decision to become a founding member “shows that this government has no aim,” said MP Mohamed Saeed, former economic development minister.

Speaking at Wednesday night’s event to mark China’s National Day, National Planning and Infrastructure Minister Mohamed Aslam said the Maldives was “proud to be one of the first partners in the joint initiative to develop the 21st-century maritime silk route envisioned by President Xi.”

– One million Chinese tourists –

Shahid told Maldives state media during the visit that the government hopes to attract one million Chinese tourists a year by 2023. At present, different airlines operate 26 flights a week between China and Maldives, Shahid noted.

“During discussions with the [Chinese] foreign minister we talked about increasing the number of flights. The purpose is to increase space for Chinese tourists who want to visit the Maldives,” he said.

With the introduction of direct flights in 2010, Chinese tourist arrivals grew exponentially and went on to account for the largest market share from a single source country. But arrival numbers peaked in 2014 with about 364,000 visitors and steadily declined since 2015.

Arrivals so far this year have bucked the downward trend. The number of Chinese holidaymakers grew 7.6 percent and reached 172,834 by the end of July, representing a market share of 17.4 percent.

“We’re also seeking Chinese investors to invest in our tourism industry so that the product that the Chinese want itself could be sprouted in the country,” Shahid told Chinese state-run media Xinhua.