President Mohamed Waheed Hassan has revealed his plans to visit China on an official state visit next week, highlighting the continued significance of the nation to Maldivian interests.
“China is a fast developing nation and most products are being made there. Both small and larger countries are trying to establish trade ties with China. Hence we should also follow suit,” Waheed told local media upon his return yesterday from a state visit to Sri Lanka.
The last official state visit by a Maldivian President to China came in May 2010 when Mohamed Nasheed visited the Shanghai World Expo.
Nasheed met Chinese President Hu Jintao during his trip, Dr Waheed is himself reportedly expecting to meet Prime Minister Wen Jiabao next week.
The Foreign Ministry has said that more information about the visit would be released to the media in the coming days.
Ministry of Economic Development’s figures show that imports from China have more than doubled between 2010 and 2011, reaching US$68.9 million dollars.
Maldivian exports to China were reported to total just $26,000 last year, consisting largely of fisheries products.
Vice President of the Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) Ishmael Asif explained that the potential of Sino-Maldivian ties could be better realised through increased awareness of nature of the island nation.
“The Chinese are yet to understand logistics in the Maldives, including its politics,” he said. “We are trying to educate them on these things.”
He added that efforts were already being made in the field of education in order to “help us understand one another’s culture.”
In addition to trade ties, China has become increasingly important to the Maldives’ in terms of interest from tourists.
China leapfrogged the United Kingdom in 2010 to become the number one source of arrivals for the country’s travel industry.
Official figures reveal that China has provided 22.2 percent of all arrivals to the Indian Ocean nation this year – up 14.5 percent from last year.
“Most tourist arrivals to the Maldives are from China. More than 200,000 tourists come to the Maldives from China. Hence we must establish a close relationship with the country,” Waheed told reporters yesterday.
Asif added that there were great possibilities for Chinese investment in the Maldives’ tourism sector.
“For example, we have no Chinese hotel in the Maldives,” he said. “They are very interested in investment.”
The MNCCI – whose remit is to promote trade and business in the Maldives – has had an office in Chengdu for two years. Chengdu, in Szechuan province, is the departure point for most Chinese visiting the Maldives, explained Asif.
In the wake of the rapid expansion in tourism links, closer ties have developed in the fields of aviation and diplomacy.
The rise of Mega Maldives Airlines has been particularly notable in recent years. The company, started in 2010, has more than doubled in size in the last year – operating charter flights between the Maldives and five Chinese destinations, as well as Hong Kong.
In April, the company conducted a travel road show in partnership with the Maldives Ministry of Tourism.
The company reported the cancellation of some flights after the political unrest in the Maldives in February. Although arrivals figures bounced back, the Maldives still remains on the Hong Kong Security Bureau’s travel alert system.
Disturbances in the capital at the time included the destruction of the National Museum’s pre-Islamic display. The Museum itself was a gift from China in 2010.
A Chinese embassy opened in Male’ in time for the opening of the SAARC summit last November, reciprocating the opening of a Maldivian mission in Beijing in 2007.
Indian officials were reported at the time as having concern that the move was part of China’s “string of pearls” policy which supposedly involves Chinese attempts at naval expansion into the Indian Ocean.
When asked by a reporter what the Maldives’ policy was regarding Sino-Indian competition in the region, President Waheed is said to have responded that the policy of a small nation like the Maldives ought to be to avoid too great an involvement in geopolitics.
Waheed’s first official state visit after becoming president saw him travel to India in May. The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) conducted joint naval operations with India in the same month.