President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s policies towards China and India received far more attention during the last five years than any foreign policy issue had in recent Maldivian political history. After many talks were held and agreements signed, Mr Abdul Gayoom initiated a long spell of infrastructural development centred on the capital city of Male; most of which was backed by the economic giant.
Critics of President Yameen’s administration decried a lack of transparency behind these dealings with China, and alleged that the Maldives was being lead into a “debt trap” which would ruin the economy. During the 2018 presidential campaign, opposition campaigners boiled the Chinese backing as putting “your children’s children” in debt.
One of the most prominent voices fueling this criticism of China and its relationship with the Maldives was Mr Mohamed Nasheed, the de facto leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) being one of the major participants of the ruling Maldives United Opposition (MUO) coalition.
In the weeks following the MDP’s Mr Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s presidential bid against Mr Abdul Gayyoom, it was generally feared that Mr Solih’s administration would follow his party’s leader and reconstruct national policies regarding China based on Mr Nasheed’s views.
Mr Nasheed’s criticism of China has been characterized as “reckless”. He is a man once described by the Indian NDTV as “brash” and “immature”.
As early as 2015, Mr Nasheed alleged that then-President Abdul Gayyoom had agreed to hand over large portions of Laamu Atoll to China for the establishment of a military base on a 99-year lease in exchange for USD$2 billion.
The Chinese embassy had issued a statement denying the claim as “completely false”, and instead stating that China does not maintain foreign military bases. Mr Nasheed did not follow up with a rebuttal of the Chinese statement.
Given the growth in infrastructural development in the Maldives, Mr Nasheed’s gaze appeared to shift towards the Maldives’ growing external debt.
In an interview with Reuters in June 2018, Mr Nasheed claimed that “China has dragged the Maldives into a debt trap and adding that any future government formed by the opposition will be unable to repay the loans unless a review cuts them to real value.” Mr Nasheed had alleged that “total loans to build infrastructure, provided by China’s Exim bank, should be “easily more than USD2.5 billion.”
He further voiced skepticism regarding the commercial viability of Chinese projects in the Maldives, and alleged that there was a lack of transparency regarding how these projects had been granted and managed. These claims had been repeated on partisan news media throughout the months leading up to the presidential elections in September.
In the weeks leading up to Mr Solih’s inauguration, the MUO had remained silent regarding Mr Nasheed’s antics. During those weeks, Mr Nasheed took to the road in what appeared to be a campaign of his own.
“The Indian Ocean is changing!” Mr Nasheed had said, addressing his followers in Addu City, one the southernmost islands in the Maldives, in the fiery tone of a demagogue. “There is a Cold War brewing in the Indian Ocean… The displeasure and the discontent of India and China shall finally be experienced by, and shall be settled in this Addu Atoll.”
Soon after, he travelled to the MDP stronghold of Dhidhdhoo, in the very north of the country, where he claimed that China was planning to “enslave” the Maldives.
“We will pay for what was actually provided to the Maldives by any foreign country. But we want to find out what’s behind that USD3.2 billion,” said Mr Nasheed, inflating his estimate of the Maldivian debt to China. “We know what the cost of concrete is for the bridge. We must weigh it all. We can only pay for what was actually given to us.”
Mr Nasheed’s antics, as that of a party leader, had begun to cast a cloud on Sino-Maldivian diplomatic relations.
Mr Geng Shuang, a representative of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had to follow up his warm congratulations to Mr Solih with a sharp reprimand of Mr Nasheed’s rhetoric.
“We are deeply confused and regret these irresponsible remarks made by certain persons,” said Mr Geng, refraining from naming Mr Nasheed. “We shall reiterate that we will continue our cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, abide by the market rules and regulations”.
In response to Mr Nasheed’s inflammatory rhetoric, the Chinese ambassador to the Maldives spoke out against Mr Nasheed. The Chinese ambassador, Mr Zhang Lizhong, spoke to the local newspaper Avas to voice his disapproval.
“I don’t know how or from where Nasheed is getting this information. I really want to meet Nasheed and inform him the truth. In fact I invite Nasheed to meet me so that I can brief him,” said Mr Zhang.
“We have nothing to gain if a friendly country falls into debt,” said Mr Zhang. “There is no single evidence to support so called debt trap claim. China has always looked to work with other countries for mutual benefit and equality.”
Mr Zhang proceeded to state the Mr Nasheed’s claim of a USD$3 billion debt to China was “deeply exaggerated”, and stated that the Maldives’ debt to China was $600 million to construct the Sina-Male Bridge, developing the airport, and for residential housing projects. Another $900 million had been earmarked as commercial loans to some state owned companies to fund projects from power to housing. However, Mr Zhang noted that much of this had not yet been issued. Mr Zhang’s estimates were supported by the testimony of Mr Ahmed Naseer, governor of the Maldivian central bank.
Some days later, in an interview with the BBC, Mr Nasheed took aim at the Free Trade Agreement that had been signed by the Maldivian government in 2017. “The free trade agreement is very one-sided… the numbers don’t match,” said Mr Nasheed. He further claimed that the new Solih administration would renege on the FTA. Mr Nasheed had previously claimed that China was “busy buying up the Maldives” during the Yameen administration. He claimed that a trade imbalance between China and the Maldives is so vast that “nobody would think of an FTA between such parties… China is not buying anything from us. It is a one-way treaty.”
Mr Geng was quick to respond. The FTA was based on friendly and equal consultation on behalf of both parties, he stated. “It is mutually beneficial. The early implementation of the agreement will bring benefits to the two countries at an early date. We believe the Maldivian government will make the right choice in this aspect,” said Mr Geng.
The Solih administration showed its mettle when its silence on Mr Nasheed’s antics was broken by Mr Abdullah Shahid, President Solih’s Foreign Minister.
Minister Shahid is an American-educated veteran parliamentarian, having served 25 years in the Citizen’s Majlis; over which he had also presided as Speaker. Minister Shahid refuted Mr Nasheed’s claim that the government was planning to renege on the Free Trade Agreement. He further noted that the Agreement is being studied again, since it had been ratified hastily in the previous year.
“The agreement has been already signed. So the government can only say anything after finding out all the details,” said Minister Shahid. The Foreign Minister also refused to comment on reports that the government would renegotiate agreements with China. Instead, he vowed to clarify details during his upcoming visit to Beijing next month.
“If we say anything without finding out all the details,” said Minister Shahid, “it can harm relations between the two countries. So first, we must find out all the details before commenting.”
The Solih administration is showing the tact and restraint required of handling the immensely difficult task of managing the country ahead of them. Their affiliation with a man like Mr Nasheed certainly does not make the job any easier.