China’s top legislator Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Wu Bangguo met today with his Maldivian counterpart, Speaker of the Majlis and Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Abdulla Shahid.
Wu is the highest ranking Chinese diplomat to visit the Maldives, and major streets in Male’ were lined with Maldivian and Chinese flags to mark his arrival.
During a meeting held inside the parliament, Shahid thanked Wu for the aid the Chinese government has offered to the Maldives over the past years, and spoke about strengthening diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Wu used the occasion to announce a doubling of Chinese aid to the Maldives to 100 million yuan (US$15.4 million), and said China would be opening an embassy in the country.
He also announced that China would offer 11 scholarships to Maldivian students in 2011 and 2012. Furthermore, Chinese flights would begin operating directly to the Maldives from different parts of China.
During his visit to the Majlis, Wu’s delegation presented parliament with 77 laptops (one for each MP), 50 cameras, and two 55-inch plasma TVs.
Wu also met President Mohamed Nasheed and signed an agreement on economic and technical cooperation between China and the Maldives.
Foreign Policy Advisor and former Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed observed to Minivan News that the visit of such a senior Chinese dignitary represented a major development in the diplomatic and economic relationship between the two countries.
“The main interests China has in the Maldives are our support of the One China policy, and greater collaboration on climate change,” Dr Shaheed said, noting that next year would be the 40th year of Chinese engagement with the Maldives.
Chinese tourism arrivals in the Maldives last year exceeded those of the country’s traditional European market. Dr Shaheed explained that the Chinese government’s endorsement of the Maldives was integral to growing the market.
“It’s very important to have official approval – we had to ask and obtain permission to accept large groups [of Chinese tourists] to the Maldives,” Dr Shaheed said. “Even beyond tourism, China is a huge market and is increasingly visible in our region.”
He disputed that the Maldives had to balance its engagement with China with its diplomatic relationship with India.
“I don’t think we have to walk a tight-rope. We are firstly a SAARC member country, and China’s friendship is about broader global interest rather than regional,” he explained.
“The Maldives has been very active on the international stage in areas that are relevant to China, such as climate change and human rights, and China may see us as an important country to engage.”
While China had not lobbied the Maldives on issues relating to human rights, Dr Shaheed observed that Maldives last year declined to accept Chinese Guantanamo Bay detainees due to concerns expressed by China. Instead, the Maldives had switched its consideration to Palestinian detainees.
China has been very active in Sri Lanka, recently establishing a naval facility following the country’s defeat of Tamil separtists. Dr Shaheed said he did not believe the Maldives would follow suit.
“I do not think we are on the radar for a base,” he said. “We’ve made our position clear that we have longstanding policy not to host foreign troops in the Maldives. Sri Lanka has only recently been exposed to many other countries, whereas we have broader options.”
While Chinese involvement in the Maldives was unlikely to reach Sri Lankan levels, Dr Shaheed predicted that the doubling of Chinese aid would make its presence “much more visible.”
China’s aid specialities, he noted, were infrastructure projects such as roads and housing projects, which would likely increase with the country’s doubled commitment.
China has already donated the Foreign Ministry and the recently-opened Maldives National Museum – one of the biggest buildings in Male’.