Cooperation with China under B&R initiative will drive win-win economic development: Maldivian ambassador

By Bai Yunyi and Zhang Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/6 23:18:39

Editor's Note:

The Maldives suffered political unrest earlier this year, as the government declared a 45-day state of emergency that was lifted by the end of March.

The Indian Ocean country, famous for its beautiful holiday resorts, is one of the first countries to embrace China's Belt and Road (B&R) initiative and has gained a momentum in bilateral ties development with China in recent years.

Maldivian Ambassador to China Mohamed Faisal (Faisal) talked with Global Times reporters Bai Yunyi and Zhang Xin (GT) in an exclusive interview, to introduce the current situation of the country, explain its "India First" policy, and talk about how the B&R initiative can play a complementary role in existing multilateral financial services platforms.

Maldivian Ambassador to China Mohamed Faisal Photo: Courtesy of the Maldivian Embassy in Beijing



GT: It seems that the relations between China and the Maldives have seen unprecedented development over the past five years. And the two countries signed a historic Free Trade Agreement (FTA) at the end of 2017. What do you think are the most important reasons for the vigorous development of bilateral ties?

Faisal: I think first of all, it's the deep trust that we have between our two countries. We have been bilateral partners since 1972. We have been cooperating in many fields over the past 45 years. And I think recently, the main reason for the enhancement of the relations is firstly the official exchange of high-level visits, first by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Maldives in 2014, and then by our president to China in December 2017. Before the official visit, our president had been to China twice on unofficial visits. So we have had very high-level exchanges for the past four or five years, and I think this has cemented the relationship between the two countries and enhanced trust. During the visit of President Xi to the Maldives, very important agreements were signed, including many infrastructure development agreements. And when our president was here, we signed the historical FTA with China, and also we signed a memorandum to cooperate on the B&R initiative.

My government is pro-development, focusing on economic transformation of the country. In this regard, we need assistance from a lot of countries, from a lot of partners. And China has been very forthcoming. They have been very generous and willing to help us in our economic transformation project. And I think that is the second reason for the enhancement of the relationship between our two countries.

We share a common belief in win-win development. And I think this underlines the development partnership between the two countries. We are both working on win-win development projects, which will benefit both countries. And in this regard, the government of the Maldives looks very favorably to Chinese initiatives, especially the B&R initiative and the Chinese government's willingness to assist developing countries. China has gone through 40 years of opening-up and reform. Now they are at a level where they can also come and help other developing countries. So I think these are the reasons that our relationship is now at such a strong level compared to the past.



GT: Recently, there have been Western organizations criticizing the B&R initiative as "hampering free trade and putting Chinese companies at an advantage." Do you think the statement is true?

Faisal: I don't think it's true, because you know, in Southeast Asia and South Asia, there's a huge funding gap - $15 trillion of funding gap. These countries alone cannot undertake the massive infrastructure projects needed to uplift the living conditions of their people. I think frameworks such as the B&R initiative is very important in this regard. Of course, we have the multilateral banks like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, but they can't do all the work. So I think the B&R initiative is very important to enable countries to find ways to make up this financial gap, to provide necessary financing to countries.

And China has a rich history of self-development. If you look at cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou [capital of East China's Zhejiang Province], you can see that the capacity of Chinese companies to do infrastructure is exceptional. Over the 40 years of opening-up and reform, China has made unparalleled development gains. So there are several success stories that you can take to these countries, but it doesn't mean Chinese companies are going to take over. I don't believe it. I don't think there is any other country in the world right now who advocates more than China for free trade and globalization.



GT: Regarding the recent political unrest, could you give us some information about the latest situation in Malé? Do you think it′s already safe now for Chinese tourists to travel there?

Faisal: I would say everything is settled down. Right now we don't have any problems. Of course there are some ongoing court cases related to events that happened in February. It's very stable. I must tell you that even in February, when we had these problems, it was very safe. Even during the height of these problems, the tourists were not impacted. It was business as usual. But we understand the Chinese government was very careful to safeguard their citizens. We accept and respect that.



GT: We remember that during the unrest, a Maldivian political figure stated that China is engaged in "land grabbing" of Maldivian islands, and the Maldivian government is "selling the Maldives to China." Do you have any comments about his words? In your opinion, how many Maldivian people might agree with this kind of view?

Faisal: Firstly, I think the Maldivian government, and also the Chinese government, have come out very strongly, and they have addressed this statement by a former president. I personally think it was a very irresponsible statement. This was purely a baseless political statement, because he couldn't show any evidence of this. I think he made the statement in India, and one of the journalists asked him to name these islands, but he couldn't name even a single island that we have given to the Chinese.

Of course, there are some tourism investments by Chinese companies. I think seven islands are under development by Chinese companies, but we have more island resorts with interests of companies from other countries. We have Indian interests, European interests, Middle Eastern interests and so on in our tourism industry. We lease our islands for resort development, so there are a lot of people having leases on the islands. We give such leases once they complete all the procedures, pay all the relevant taxes and lease payments. We lease to everybody according to the overall tourism development plan and needs.

So this statement was merely a political statement, and I don't think a single Maldivian believed it. In the Maldives, our regulations regarding the lease of an island are very well known. People know who owns what; who are lease holders, who are developers and who are managers of resort islands. So from the very beginning, everyone knew that this was not correct. We knew the real motive was to drive a wedge between the cordial relations we had with China.



GT: Recently, Maldivian foreign minister Mohamed Asim reaffirmed the policy "India First" during his visit to India. Could you please explain to us what exactly this conception "India First" means? When and why did the Maldivian government adopt this policy?

Faisal:  We don't have a written policy as such. But it is based on the close relations that we have with India throughout our history. India is one of our closest neighbors, and whenever we've had an issue or a crisis, India has been the first to respond. Even now, if we have a problem, we seek Indian help.

Our foreign policy is based on the principle of working with all who respect our independence and sovereignty, and who respect the needs of our country. We are open to working with everyone. We have been a long standing member of the non-aligned movement. We don't believe in alliances, we believe in partnerships. And in this regard, China is now one of our closest development partners. And that is the reason we have signed the first bilateral FTA with China.

It's not just China and India, but we work very closely with a lot of other countries. But it is unacceptable for us if countries place conditions on our partnership or friendship. We firmly believe in the concept of ''shared common destiny" and all of us working together to enhance the livelihoods of our people and protecting global public goods. In all these respects, the Maldives is truly a global citizen.



GT: What do you think about some Indian media stating that "India First" has been replaced by "China First"?

Faisal: The statement has no truth. As I said, we have very long-standing ties with India. Even culturally, our people are very much affiliated with Indians.  Indian movies, Indian culture and [Indian] music are very familiar to us. We have this affinity. And that is the reason why the people of the Maldives and India are always going to be very close. No matter what the political situation is, no matter what the politicians are saying, as two countries, we will continue to work and support each other. This is regardless of who is leading the nation. I don't think the Indian government and media should fear that we are close to China. Because the reason we're close with China is the same reason why we're close with India: we want these countries to come and help us to develop our country. Both China and India can play a concrete and active part in the economic and social transformation of the Maldives.

GT: There are a lot of Chinese tourists and several big Chinese projects in the Maldives. How do Maldivian people think of Chinese people and Chinese enterprises?

Faisal: I think all Maldivian people love the Chinese, both the country and its people. This is especially true for the tourism industry. The arrival of Chinese tourists in the Maldives was welcomed whole-heartedly. Our tourism product was very European-oriented. So whenever there is a financial crisis or other problems in Europe, our tourism industry always suffers. So China has become a very important market in that regard, because it has brought some stability into our tourism market. Chinese arrivals are also important for the new guesthouse segment of our tourism industry. And of course, our people have been interacting with Chinese people for a long time now. So there's a very positive vibe between the two people.

Also, since we started these big infrastructure development projects in the Maldives, especially the friendship bridge project, the Maldivian people are now seeing how capable Chinese companies are. The technology and the equipment used by Chinese companies are world class. It is the first time we have seen this kind of technology used for infrastructure development on our soil. And so they have a very high regard for Chinese companies and their capabilities and capacities to undertake big projects in various parts of the world.

GT: Besides economic ties, do you think there are any other sectors where we can strengthen bilateral ties? You just mentioned the cultural affinity between the Maldives and India, is there a growing interest among Maldivians toward Chinese culture?

Faisal: I think we can do much more in the area of culture and sports exchanges. This is something that we haven't done much in the past 45 years. The embassy does some activities in Beijing to promote our culture, food and cuisine, but I think, bilaterally, we need to do a lot more, because people-to-people exchange is very important. So we need to find more areas where our people can come together and walk toward lifting this relationship to new heights. 

We are also opening Chinese language classes in schools in the Maldives now. We had a group of students come to Beijing last year. And I think the Chinese Embassy in the Maldives is also trying to open a culture center. I think this is very important, because language can break down barriers. Now, when Maldivian people think about China, they will think about Jacky Chan and the Great Wall. But China is a magnificent country and there are a lot of things for people to see.


Newspaper headline: True global citizen


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