China dismisses Nasheed’s claim of military base in Laamu Atoll

China has denied former President Mohamed Nasheed’s suggestions that the Maldivian government is planning to hand over large parts of Laamu Atoll to China for a military base.

A Chinese embassy press statement released yesterday described Nasheed’s allegations as “completely false”.

“It is a common knowledge that China pursues a national defense policy that is defensive in nature”, read the press release. “China does not maintain any military in any foreign country”.

“China always upholds the five principles of peaceful coexistence in its foreign relations, and believes in peace, development, and win-win cooperation. This is also the foundation for China-Maldives relations which are not only mutually beneficial but also transparent to the outside world,” it continued.

While speaking to the press after returning from a trip to Abu Dhabi last week (January 22), Nasheed had alleged that the Maldives was to hand over large parts of the southern atoll to China for a military base on a 99-year lease, in exchange for US$2 billion.

While speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the Laamu Atoll link road – to be built and financed by the Chinese government – last month, President Abdulla Yameen revealed that the government had identified the area as a potential special economic zone (SEZ).

Following the Chinese response, Nasheed today (January 25) tweeted: “it is encouraging to see the Chinese Government reconsidering their strategic plans in the Indian Ocean”.

Regional presence

China’s rising economic presence in the Indian Ocean region has stoked concerns in New Delhi that China is creating a ‘string of pearls’ to encircle India, including Chinese investments in ports and other key projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Last month, the Maldives officially agreed to participate in China’s Silk Road trade route, becoming the third country to do so, while also revealing that the two countries have agreed to engage upon free trade in the future.

Chinese state media has connected the Maritime Silk Road Project, which which will link China to the east coast of Africa and the Mediterranean, to the proposed ‘iHavan’ transshipment port – one of five mega-projects designed to take advantage of the US$18 trillion worth of goods transported across the seven degree channel annually.

The British armed forces maintained a base in Addu Atoll between the Second World War until 1976, while a leaked Status of Forces Agreement with the US in 2013 prompted speculation about a new military base, though this was subsequently denied by US officials.

President Abdulla Yameen was reported to have said, during a visit to Sri Lanka last year, that he had decided against pursuing the SOFA deal for fear of upsetting regional neighbours.

President Xi monitoring progress

The Chinese press release noted today that China had been a close neighbour of the Maldives for centuries, and that bilateral relations had “expanded greatly in recent years”.

“We hope that Maldivian politicians can conduct more dialogues that are conducive to China-Maldives friendly relations, and engage in more actions that could promote the mutually beneficial cooperation between our two countries.”

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also reported today as saying that President Xi Jinpeng was closely monitoring the progress of the Hulhulé bridge project and development of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) – both of which China has expressed an interest in.

An agreement for a feasibility study into the bridge linking the airport island of Hulhulé with the capital Malé was signed with China late last year, while financial arrangements for the development of INIA are said to be under discussion with China’s Exim Bank.

A preliminary contract agreement for the airport’s development was signed during President Xi’s visit to the Maldives in September – the first by a Chinese head of state to the Indian Ocean nation. President Xi expressed hope at the time that the bridge might be named the Maldives-China friendship bridge.

President Yameen has made clear his intention to further pursue already rapidly expanding ties with China, announcing a policy shift to the east while criticising the interference of western powers.

China also accounts for one third of all tourists visiting the Maldives.

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