Maldives celebrates opening of China-built bridge as the two countries vow to strengthen ties

By Wang Cong in Male Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/31 8:58:19

The Maldives on Thursday night put on a spectacular show in its capital city Male as the nation celebrated the opening of a brand-new bridge hailed as the project of the century in the small nation in the Indian Ocean and a hallmark project for the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

As the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which was built and largely funded by China, officially opened for operation, officials from the two countries vowed to further strengthen bilateral ties and cooperation and set up a global example of how countries of different sizes should treat each other with respect.

As the scathing temperature cooled and night fell in Male, local residents, many in traditional dress, started gathering at a park near the bridge to attend the opening ceremony of the bridge and become part of what local officials described as a dream coming true.

"Tonight, we celebrate the dawn of a new era for the Maldives. A dawn where Maldivians see their future unfolding into an age of progress and tranquility. A dawn where dreams can finally become reality, hopes prosper and life is more tenable," Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, visibly emotional, told the thousands of people who cheered passionately.

Twice in his speech at the ceremony, Yameen switched to Chinese and said: "Thank you, President Xi Jinping! Thank you to the people of China!" That drew applause from the Chinese delegation and workers.

Construction for the bridge was first agreed upon by China and the Maldives during an official visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the South Asian nation in September 2014. Ground was officially broken in March 2016 and the bridge was completed in July 2018. 

As part of the agreement, the project, which has an estimated investment of 1.26 billion yuan ($184.44 million), was largely funded by China through direct aid and discount loans to the Maldives, which together account for 91.8 percent of the total investment. The Maldivian government picked up 8.2 percent of the cost, according to a statement from the contractor CCCC Second Harbour Engineering Co, a unit of China Communications Construction Co.

"This bridge represents the new symbol for the China-Maldives friendship… China has always offered help and support for the social and economic development of the Maldives," Wang Xiaotao, the Chinese government's special envoy and head of the China's International Development and Cooperation Agency, said at the ceremony. 

Tangible results

The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which links the Maldivian capital to its neighboring islands of Hulhumale and Hulhule, where the country's largest airport is located, is the first sea-crossing bridge for the Maldives and is crucial for the country's long-term economic development, which faces lagging infrastructure and a lack of investment toward improving it.

"My resolve was to fit-in the most crucial but missing piece of development strategy for the Maldives," Yameen said. "Thousands of people crossing 1 km of water several times every day was a big dream that kept us hoping. Yet it was thought to be beyond economic and engineering resources available to the Maldives."

Yameen said the bridge will help people cross the sea to Hulhumale, which is being developed into a modern city - "the city of hope, a new 'Madinah' for our youth."

"I'm just enjoying the moment because it's so beautiful," Ali Ameen, a 20-year old man living in Male, told the Global Times after the ceremony. Asked how he felt about the bridge, Ameen was choked up and said, "I can't explain. But thank you so much."

Ameen said that traveling between the capital and the islands was hard because it had been relying on ships, which during rough weather, is impossible. "Now we have a bridge," he said.

The bridge will decongest the capital, which has about 133,000 people living in just 5.8-square-kilometers of land and boost economic growth by directly and conveniently connecting the capital to the airport.

While the ceremony, which featured both Chinese and Maldivian traditional performances and a huge fireworks show on the bridge, drew thousands to the site, others watched afar from a variety of places that ranged from rooftops to streets. 

"I almost cried when I saw the fireworks. It's not often we see such big fireworks. It's really awesome!" said Shiuma who watched the fireworks with colleagues on a balcony of the hotel they work at, where they had a viewing party.

Another employee of the hotel, who was from Sri Lanka and did not give his name, told the Global Times earlier that he hopes business will improve after the bridge opens. "We are the closest to the airport so I hope more people will come and stay here. Maybe we need some advertising at the airport."

A new starting point

As locals cheered the opening of the bridge, officials vowed that this is merely the starting point for future China-Maldives cooperation.

"This new bridge represents a new starting point for China-Maldives relations… and for the two countries to seek more mutually beneficial cooperation going forward and deliver tangible benefits to both of our peoples," Wang said, noting China will continue to share opportunities with the Maldives under the BRI and support social and economic development in the Maldives.

 "China and the Maldives will always respect and support each other and together we set a good example for countries that vary in size to treat each other as equals and to seek win-win cooperation. No matter how the international environment changes, China will always be a good friend and partner of the Maldives," he said, prompting a round of applause from the audience. 

Apart from the bridge, China has also helped the Maldives build roads and other infrastructure projects. The increased cooperation between China and the Maldives has even drawn wary attention from some countries, most noticeably India. Traditionally, India is largely believed to be keeping the Maldives under its wing and some media reports suggest that the Maldivian government is handing over its country to China because of its debt.

But Maldivian officials strongly pushed back on such claims.

"Being the chair of the public accounts committee for the last four years, being the person who sat in the chair to revive the budget for the last four years… I could assure the entire international community there is nothing like that happening. China has been very generous," Ahmed Nihan Hussain, majority leader of the People's Majlis, Maldives' Parliament, told the Global Times. 

Liang Haiming, chairman of the China Silk Road iValley Research Institute, said that the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, contrary to baseless claims and accusations about Chinese investments overseas, reflects China's vision for the BRI: sharing opportunities, joint development and a mutual win.

"China proposed the BRI to bring tangible benefits and interests to the people in all the participant countries, including the Maldives. … [The bridge] represents a constructive step for both BRI and the Maldives," Liang told the Global Times, adding that China is helping these countries using its economic model, which pays great importance to infrastructure. "In China, we believe that to prosper, we must build the road first. We hope by helping to build roads for these countries, we also help their long-term development."

Rising capabilities

Along with the cheering and praise for the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge on Thursday night, there was also a showcase of China's rising capabilities in building world-class bridges in harsh conditions and on short deadlines.

"The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge fully reflects China's capabilities in technology and execution in the area of bridge building," said a statement from the project's contractor CCCC Second Harbour Engineering Co, noting that the bridge was built using Chinese technologies, equipment, material and standards. 

"To build such a world-class bridge using our own standards and equipment is an opportunity to promote Chinese standards, technology and equipment on the world stage," said Cheng Duoyun, head engineer for the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge project.

Cheng said that his team and construction workers had to overcome unpredictable coral geology, rough waves and hydrodynamic conditions and an extremely tight deadline.

During the project, CCCC Second Harbour Engineering has gained approval for 11 patent rights to technologies related to construction on coral, according to the statement.

"When we first arrived here, I think many people were skeptical because we were starting something that many had studied for decades and couldn't do. But overtime they realized that the bridge was finally coming," said Cheng.

But things were not easy, apart from all the technological difficulties, they were also only given 33 months to complete something that would, in normal cases, require at least five years, Cheng said.

"It was nerve-racking the whole time. I literally put our lives on the line to make sure we finish this project on time," Cheng said. "But this was such an important project decided on by the two governments. This is not about us. It's about our two countries."

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