Closer Chinese ties not a replacement for strained Indian relations: President’s Office

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.”

Election predictions

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.

National interests

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.

Coalition criticism

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.


“The country I want to go most eagerly is not safe anymore”: WEIBO China

In the poll “Has the coup affected your holiday plans in the Maldives?” hosted on a Chinese website on February 12, a little more than one third of the 8,107 votes chose “it has affected them more or less”, while one third of Chinese voters indicated “it has no influence on them”. Less than one third were unaware of the political situation.

Following the abrupt resignation of former president Mohamed Nasheed early last week China’s embassy in the Maldives, which opened in November, 2011, notified Chinese agencies and media outlets in an unofficial advisory that capital Male’ is currently unsafe for tourists and advised tourists to make only necessary trips to Male’.

“We have been trying our best to ensure Chinese nationals’ personal safety. Tourists reach the international airport and then can directly go to the resort. They will be safe on the resorts,” said Sun Jianbo, Second Secretary of China’s Embassy in Male’.

“As far as I know, no harm to Chinese tourists has been caused by these political events yet,” he added.

In 2011, China rose to become the No.1 source of tourism, surpassing the Maldives’  traditional European market with over 700,000 arrivals last year. The jump in business has re-shaped the industry- local travel agencies and resort staff are now keen to hire Mandarin speakers and are working to stay current on Chinese cultural habits.

Although many have projected that China will remain a stable, even growing partner in tourism, the Chinese market was quick to respond to what Nasheed’s government has called a coup d’etat on February 7.

A few Maldivian travel agencies who work closely with the Chinese market told Minivan News that the current politics has started to influence their bookings. “Quite a lot of Chinese customers are very concerned of this situation. Some of them are hesitant to make reservations now,” said Emy Zheng, a Chinese national working at Villuxa Holidays. She noted that only a few bookings have been cancelled, while several others have tried to postpone their holiday.

Zheng suggested that most Chinese nationals responded well to explanations of the situation, and assurances that the Maldives one-island one-resort mantra guarantees vacationers distance from local events.

“I told guests about the real life in Male’, which is more reliable than news they get from media in China. Some friends in China are very worried about my life here after seeing news on TV, but personally I don’t feel threatened living in Male’ as my friends and I just stay at home after work,” Zheng explained, adding, “I don’t think many Chinese have the access to know the real life here.”

Like Zheng, many Chinese national workers in Male’ have stuck to their routines. For them, the tourism industry has only been minimally affected. In China, however, travel agencies say the market is taking a heavy hit.

Shanghai travel agent Sun Yi said she was faced with many cancellations just two days after the coup. ”It has seriously affected our business. Many guests cancelled the Maldivian holiday package which used to be very popular,” she explained.

Yi continued that her company has also decided to suspend its plan to hold a commercial event at a Maldives resort this spring.

Although a Chinese tourism industry professional on the marketing of holiday destination Maldives, Yi has not yet visited the country. She said she is very worried about the current state of affairs.

Social media suggests that the average Chinese traveler is barely informed.

Before most Chinese media outlets had reported news of the Maldives’ change of government, travelers-to-be noticed a post in WEIBO (Chinese version of Twitter) by Maldives resort-based Chinese diving instructor Jai He.

Mr. He received the news of Nasheed’s resignation while watching national television during his lunch hour on Male’. After posting the news on WEIBO he was immediately contacted by a few Chinese media.

But now, a WEIBO search for “Maldives” yields only a few incomplete statements of the actual events; most posts voice poetic concerns of a tainted dream holiday or honeymoon, or an exaggerated description of the current situation in paradise.

One forum user wrote, “Fires of war are burning through the country. The country I want to go most eagerly is not safe anymore.”

Among the posts the word “democracy”- a concept politicians on both sides of the divide are using as weapon and shield – was uncommon.

WEIBO has undoubtedly become a platform for some Chinese to enjoy a moderate amount of free speech. While the Maldives is a definite topic of conversation, WEIBO users are more concerned with the damage to their holiday dreams than the threats on Male’s streets- or the connection between the current change of government and China’s own so-called “democratic centralisation”.

But the government is more cautious.

While the US and India have recognised the Maldives’ new regime under former Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, China has not officially expressed any political leaning.

Second Secretary Jianbo told Minivan News he had no idea what would happen to the regime, but “things seem to gradually be calming down now as the new government has appointed new officers today.”

In spite of the uncertainty, the Chinese tourism board has not issued a travel alert for the Maldives.

“We are not able to release anything now towards the current situation until the Chinese
foreign affairs department speaks,” Sun said, indicating that more information would be available in a few days’ time.

“The Embassy’s most important function is to maintain and deepen the two countries’ relationship,” Sun explained. Asked whether China will continue to foster a close relationship with the new government, Sun said, “No comments”.