Maldives admits China interest in building port

Maldives government on Thursday admitted that China has expressed interest in building a port in the archipelago but insisted that there was no confirmed plan at present.

For the past couple of years, reports that China is looking to build a port in the southern part of the country - in Laamu atoll – have raised concerns in regional giants India.

The Maldives’ ambassador to China Mohamed Faisal told the South China Morning Post that the country would push ahead with Chinese projects and seek more investment from the country, regardless of concerns raised by regional power India.

Rivalry between China and India has been playing out amid political turmoil in the Indian Ocean archipelago that erupted in early February.

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom on February 5 had declared a 15 day state of emergency after his last ditch attempt to convince the top court to revoke the order failed, purged the Supreme Court by arresting two judges and the remaining political leaders and ultimately had the order revoked.

As the state of emergency expired, president Yameen had got the parliament contentiously extend it by another 30 days.

Hours before the 45 day state of emergency was set to expire, legal affairs minister Azima Shakoor flanked by the Attorney General (AG) Mohamed Anil announced the president's decision to lift the emergency state with effect from 12pm Thursday.

“We have been caught up in this new way that the world is looking at China,” Faisal said.

“It is part of a global trend now – a lot of people are seeing what China is doing because in terms of both economically and global power, China is rising,” he said.

“There has been tension and pressure on the Maldives … the talk of debt traps, land grabs in the nation is because we have been working with China. If we were working with India or the US, people would not be talking.”

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the Maldives in 2014, investment from China in the nation has boomed. Apart from the two biggest projects – the airport expansion and a bridge connecting the airport to the capital Male – other Chinese investments range from social housing to island resorts.

“I must say Chinese businesses have been very slow coming to the Maldives,” the envoy said. “Right now, it’s only seven islands that Chinese have invested in, in the tourism sector. For a country with such capacity as China I think it is a very low number – it should be more than that.”

China had expressed interest in building a port in the Maldives, Faisal said, but there was no confirmed plan at present. But he said Chinese entrepreneurs and companies from other countries had been enthusiastic about investing in a new economic zone in the northernmost atoll, known as the iHavan project, that includes an airport, cruise hub, marina and dockyard.

Faisal said iHavan was an ideal location for a port in terms of global trade and sea routes.

“We are looking for foreign investments to assist us in building port facilities. We welcome all countries, not just China. It is an open invitation,” he said.

The two nations in December agreed to build an ocean observation station, a project initiated by China. It has triggered concerns in India that it might be intended for more than environmental monitoring, and could have military uses too.

China’s growing investments in South Asia have fuelled security worries in India, which sees ports acquired by China in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as representing “a string of pearls” to contain its regional power in the Indian Ocean.

But Faisal said the Maldives would not take sides as it could not afford to lose either India or China as partners.

“We have taken a lot of our projects to India as well, but we did not receive the necessary finance,” he said. “China is like a long lost cousin that we have found, a long lost cousin who is willing to help us.”

“India is a brother,” he said. “We are a family, we may quarrel and we may have arguments but in the end we will sit down and resolve it.”

The Maldives holds annual joint military exercises with India, but Faisal ruled out the possibility of the Maldives holding bilateral drills with China. He said military cooperation with the world’s biggest army would only be possible within a multilateral framework to maintain peace and stability in the Indian Ocean. He also downplayed concerns that Male could allow a Chinese military base to be built in the Maldives.

In August, three Chinese warships were allowed to dock in Male. Faisal described that as cooperation between partner countries, but said the Maldives would only work within multilateral frameworks to ensure regional security.

“Our government has made it very clear that we are not going to allow any kind of military establishments or military undertakings in the Maldives. Not for China, not for any other countries,” he said.

More than 70 per cent of the Maldives’ foreign debt is owed to China, but Faisal said it was not having trouble making payments, adding that the country had some concessional loans it would be able to repay as its tourism market expanded.