Defence Minister departs on official visit to China

Minister of Defence and National Security Colonel (Retired) Mohamed Nazim departed to China today on an official five-day visit at the invitation of the Chinese Minister of National Defence.

In a press release today, the Defence Ministry revealed that Nazim is due to hold official talks with the Chinese Minister of National Defence General Liang Guanglie and meet members of the Chinese central military commission.

“During his visit, the Defence Minister will hold meetings with China’s National Defence University, Military Medical University and Shanghai Institute for International Studies as part of his efforts to seek further opportunities for education in China,” the press release stated.

The official visit would further enhance Sino-Maldives “defence and military ties” and secure Chinese assistance for developing the Maldivian military, the Defence Ministry said.

The Defence Minister’s official visit to China follows last week’s termination by the government of a 25-year concession agreement with Indian infrastructure giant GMR to modernise and manage the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

The move fuelled speculation in the Indian media of a Chinese role in the government’s decision to void the agreement and evict the GMR-led consortium.

“Looking at the political situation and political framework in Maldives, I can’t rule out anything,” GMR Airports chief financial officer ( CFO) Sidharth Kapur told journalists in New Delhi last week.

In November 2011, China became the first non-SAARC nation to open an embassy in the Maldives. AFP at the time reported Indian officials as expressing concern that it was “part of a Chinese policy to throw a ‘string of pearls’ – or a circle of influence – around India.”

Meanwhile, the Hindu reported today that President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik has dismissed suggestions that China urged the Maldives to push out the Indian company.

“The only significant cooperation we have with China at this time is through development assistance… like building the museum, housing projects. I don’t think India should worry about it at all,” Waheed was quoted as saying.

The President further claimed that the Maldives was presently “not looking for a foreign investor” to develop the international airport, with the government yesterday announcing it was undecided on whether any new privatisation agreement would be sought in future.

However, officials from India’s External Affairs Ministry told the Indian Express on condition of anonymity that “China was keen to get a foothold in the Male’ airport asset as a base in the Maldives would put the dragon state in control of the oil routes in the region and give it greater dominance over sea lanes.”

India’s Economic Times meanwhile characterised the cancellation of the contract as a “strategic loss” for India.

Following an official visit in August, President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik told Reuters that China pledged to grant the Maldives US$500 million (MVR 7.7 billion) in loans, equal to nearly one quarter of the Maldives’ GDP.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told The Hindu a day before the airport handover that the government would again float a tender for its modernisation “and get more parties in to take the work forward.”

“The tender will be floated by the Maldives government in a transparent manner and after consulting investors. The mistakes made during the float of the tender which has been cancelled will not be repeated,” Imad told the paper.

Environment Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela has meanwhile separately appealed to China for financial and technical support, telling journalists from the Chinese government’s authorised web portal that the Maldives “needs funds for infrastructure building.”

“We are obviously in need of funds and technical assistance as we do not have the financial means, the technical know-how or the capacity to address these huge climate change issues,” said Dr Shakeela, in an appeal for assistance with climate adaptation.

Minivan News has learned that senior Chinese military officials landed at the airport in the tense week leading up to the handover.