The President’s Office has said efforts to establish closer political and economic links with China are not an attempt to directly replace bilateral assistance traditionally provided by India – despite the recent strained relationship between Male’ and New Delhi.
President Dr Mohamed Waheed was reported in Sri Lankan media on the weekend as providing “hints” that the Maldives was moving away from India and towards China in terms of development, economic assistance and bilateral ties.
Senior Advisor to President Waheed, Teresa Wells, said despite a changing relationship with China that had led to growing economic and diplomatic ties in recent years, efforts were also under way to improve relations with India due to earlier decisions by the current government.
Dr Waheed has lately come under criticism by some partners in his coalition government – who are directly contesting against him in this year’s election – for his alleged handling of bilateral relations with India since coming to power last February.
Wells dismissed any implication that ties with India were being cut or reduced.
“The president feels that relations are improving with India,” she said. “ We would want relationships with both India and China.”
Speaking to the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper on July 7, President Waheed said the relationship between the Maldives and India has been strained after his government last November declared a US$511 million airport development agreement with India-based GMR void.
He added that although restrictions on visas for Maldivian patients seeking medical treatment in India and a supply of construction materials remained in place, improvements had since been seen in bilateral relations between the two countries.
President Waheed said that the Maldives had also nonetheless moved to boost commerce ties with China.
“In terms of bilateral assistance, we have more access to Chinese financing now for development projects,” he said.
“Chinese nationals now make up the biggest chunk of tourists to the Maldives. With Europe in recession there is a slight decline of European tourists but with the middle class in China growing, the Maldives has become a new destination for them.”
Dr Waheed also expressed confidence during his visit to Sri Lanka that he would win September’s election by defeating former President Mohamed Nasheed, whom he succeeded following a controversial transfer of power in February last year on the back of a mutiny by sections of the country’s police and military.
“I am very confident of victory in the upcoming poll because I know that the Maldivian people will prefer me over the other candidates. I have steered Maldives through rough waters and very difficult times,” he told the Sunday Times.
“No one will join the former president because everybody has had a bad taste in the mouth after what happened last time.”
President’s own Gaumee Iththihaadh Party (GIP) is currently facing potential dissolution for lacking the minimum requirement of 10,000 members as stipulated in the recently passed Political Parties Act.
Meanwhile, the Maldives Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) last month alleged that of 100 members of the GIP interviewed, 85 percent of those polled had no knowledge of ever joining the party.
President Waheed also drew on parallels between himself and Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa in terms of efforts to protect national interests and “sovereignty”.
“Sometimes when we are smaller countries there is a tendency to push us around but we both feel we need to stand up to them,” he said.
Playing up his commitment to national interests, President Waheed also told Sri Lankan media that while the state-owned Maldives Airport Company Limited (MACL) had not ruled out future foreign assistance to develop the airport, the country could oversee such work itself.
“The airport is now being managed by our own airport company and there are plans to develop it. We will soon be developing a second runway. We will find the investment facility to develop the airport the way we want,” he was quoted as saying.
The Maldives faces a potential bill of US$1.4 billion – an amount four times the size of the Maldives’ state reserves – from GMR as part of compensation being sought in a Singapore through an ongoing arbitration process.
Despite Waheed’s claims about securing financing for the airport, the government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) last month claimed foreign investors were now turning away from the Maldives due to concerns about political stability and safety in the country.
On June 29, PPM presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen was quoted in local media as expressing concern that foreign businesses were shunning the Maldives in favour of financing projects in other countries in the region.
“With our present woes no one wants to invest here. They are looking at Seychelles and Caracas. No foreign investor wants to come to the Maldives,” Haveeru reported him as saying.
Earlier the same month, the PPM – part of the current coalition government – accused President Waheed of ignoring its advice by abruptly terminating the airport development contract with GMR.
MP Ahmed Nihan alleged that while the PPM believed terminating the GMR contract had been the right decision, President Waheed had nonetheless personally taken an executive decision to cancel the agreement without listening to the party’s advice in seeking a compromise with the company and the Indian government.
However, the PPM’s coalition partners later accused the party of making “contradictory statements” regarding the decision to terminate GMR’s concession agreement, accusing its senior leadership of trying to terminate the deal at the time without discussion or following due process.
Despite the high-profile termination of GMR’s concession agreement, the government’s sudden eviction of the Indian investor did not appear on a list of 11 grievances handed to all senior Maldivian reporters by the Indian High Commission in January.
The list instead included concerns such as discrimination against Indian expatriates and the confiscation of passports by Maldivian employers.