Those who thought that China will walk into a political sunset in the Maldives with the formation of an India-friendly coalition government led by President Solih are in for a rude shock. Nothing of that sort will likely happen.
Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, who concluded his two-day India trip on November 27, his first foreign visit, said in an exclusive interview with South Asian Monitor that China has been very generous to his country which greatly valued the huge quantum of developmental assistance Beijing has given to Male over the last few years. He added that the new Maldives government would like to be benefited from both China and India, and many other countries which have been contributing to its development. Resorting to plain speak, Shahid said, “Our love for China is not lost”.
Yet, in a balancing act, Shahid said that geographically India was closer to Maldives and also a time-tested friend over the past several decades and therefore New Delhi had a big role to play in developmental works in Maldives. He made it clear that his government was barely a week old and at this point of time was focused only on development.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
South Asian Monitor (SAM): Your government has openly proclaimed an “India first” policy. Does it mean that China won’t have the same influence in Maldives as it had during the regime of outgoing president Yameen?
Abdulla Shahid (AS): Our former President Yameen had tried to play India against China and China against India. He thought he could be a puppet master. But sense prevailed. India is investing in China and China has billions of dollars of investment in India. And there is a mutual respect and desire for both the countries to benefit from each other’s resources. And we in Maldives are ready to benefit from both India and China. Geographically, India is of course closer to us, and it has proven in the last several decades that India is a time-tested friend of ours and we will have an India first policy. Nevertheless, China has been very generous to us, it has given us a lot of developmental assistance and we value that. We don’t want to become an isolationist country, rather we want to engage with all our friends and it includes India and China and many of other countries that have been contributing to our development.
SAM: Your own party leader and former president Mohammed Nasheed has gone on record, saying that the Maldivian debt to China is to the tune of $1.5 billion which is humongous for a country like Maldives having a GDP of just about $3 billion. Your comments please.
AS:Our lawmakers have asked the finance minister as to how much Maldives owes as debt to China. The finance minister is finalising the national budget and his answer was that he has not been able to tally the figures. President Yameen has shrouded the figures in secrecy, the loans he had taken, not only from China but from banks and other countries. The figures are not clear. President Solih and I have been in parliament for the past five years and we tried to get these figures to the public accounts committee. President Yameen’s government refused to give us any figures. Now that we are in government, we are trying to tally these figures and corroborate them, and the finance minister would possibly have the figures in a week or 10 days.
SAM: So, what does it mean in a nutshell? How will you be disposed towards China?
AS: Our love to Chinese is not lost.
SAM: What did you seek from India during your interactions with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and other Indian interlocutors and what assurances did you get? What are the concrete deliverables that you are travelling back home with from your first foreign trip as foreign minister of Maldives?
AS: We have a huge gap in the national budget. By year-end we would require around $200-250 million to bridge that gap. We have requested the Indian government to assist us with this, besides delivering the pledges that we have made during the elections, especially the sewerage and fresh water projects. We have been promised that the Indian government would be most generous in delivering these.
SAM: Does it mean that a hefty line of credit is in the works from India to Maldives? If so, then what’s the quantum of such an LoC? Will this LoC be announced when President Solih travels to India on December 17?
AS: We already had an LoC from India. That was worth $100 million. That was many years ago. We have still not exhausted that.
SAM: How do you see the India-Maldives defence relationship panning out during your government?
AS: As we speak here today, ‘Operation Dosti’ is going on in Maldives between MNDF (Maldives National Defence Force) and the Indian navy and the Sri Lankan navy. This tripartite maritime exercise has just begun. This is the type of exercises/operations which give confidence to the littoral states of the Indian Ocean to enable them to cooperate and get to know each other better. It provides mechanisms for future security enhancement arrangements.
SAM: Returning to China, one of the Chinese investment projects that drew a lot of flak from your party, MDP, is the Maldives-China Friendship Bridge. Your thoughts.
AS: We believe that the bridge could have been built at a lower cost. The Yameen government was characterised by projects which were hugely inflated. There is a hospital which was partially built at a cost of $150 million by a Singaporean company. Only the structure has been completed. Whereas our companies were ready to build it at a cost three times less. Similarly, many of the projects undertaken by the Yameen government are believed to have been escalated cost wise, in a way that corrupt officials pocketed the money. President Solih has created a presidential commission on financial crimes and these matters would be looked into.
SAM:Are there any other specific instances where Maldives would be seeking assistance from India?
AS: There are 67 islands in Maldives which do not have proper access. We need harbours on these islands and Indian financial assistance and expertise could help us create them. We look forward to India in this respect.
(The writer is a columnist and strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha)