China Tuesday extended a guarded welcome to the election of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih – widely viewed as an ally of India – as Maldives’ new President, a day after he defeated the pro-Beijing incumbent, Abdullah Yameen, and expressed hope that the new government would keep a conducive environment for Chinese investments.
China is willing to work with Maldives to consolidate “our friendship and deepen the cooperation between the two countries”, Chinese Foreign Ministryspokesman Geng Shuang told a media briefing here.
The victory of Solih has a geopolitical significance in the South Asian region as the archipelago is strategically located in the Indian Ocean where China is flexing its muscles.
Maldives under Yameen also became an “important partner” in China’s 21st century maritime silk road, despite India’s serious reservations over its impact in the Indian Ocean.
In 2014, the island nation had signed a MoU with Beijing in support of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a project which is opposed by India as it includes the China Pakistan-Economic Corridor which transverses through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
China had also opposed any external mediation, including by the UN, when the Yameen government early this year imprisoned Supreme Court Chief JusticeAbdulla Saeed, former president M A Gayoom and other opposition politicians, saying that the crisis in the nation is its internal affair and should be resolved through dialogue and consultations by all relevant parties.
“China congratulates the Maldives on its successful presidential election as well as Solih’s victory,” Geng said in a guarded reaction.
“We respect Maldives’ people’s choice and we hope the country can maintain stability and development,” he said.
The comments were China’s first reaction to Solih’s unexpected victory on Monday. India, US and several other countries had congratulated him on Monday itself.
“China and Maldives enjoy traditional friendship. In recent years, the two countries maintained very sound development momentum and we have conducted mutually beneficial cooperation under framework of the BRI and achieved outstanding outcomes,” Geng said.
Responding to a question on strong criticism of large scale Chinese investment in the island nation and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), to which Solih belonged, Geng hoped the new government would create enabling environment for the Chinese firms to continue to work in Maldives.
“As to the FTA…we have always encouraged Chinese enterprises to invest and operate in Maldives in accordance with the market based rules and regulations,” he said.
China hopes “Maldives will maintain the consistency and the stability of their policies and create enabling atmosphere for the Chinese enterprises operations there”, Geng said.
China will work with Maldives to ensure the sound implementation of the FTA and expand the trade and investment cooperation, he added.
The FTA, which aroused concerns in India, was signed during Yameen’s visit to Beijingin September 2017.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry clarified to PTIthat the FTA is yet to come into effect. It has not come into effect from August 2018 as stated earlier.
Former Maldives president and MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed has criticised the FTA and also accused China of indulging in land grabbing, posing a threat to the peace and stability of the entire region.
The large, emerging power is “busy buying up the Maldives”, Nasheed, who lives in exile in Colombo, had told media earlier this month.
Analysts say Yameen’s defeat is another setback for China after the ouster of former Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Malaysian premier Najib Razak from power, which prompted China to reconfigure its investments.
While Geng was guarded in his comments on Tuesday, China’s senior strategic analystHu Shisheng said the China card is played in Maldives polls not only by the political parties but also by India.
Terming Yameen’s defeat as a temporary setback for China, the Director of the ChinaInstitutes of Contemporary International Relations told PTI there will not be a knee jerk reaction from China on the poll result.
“May be some Chinese projects would be affected. But if the projects are really significant for Maldives’ long-term development, I don’t think the new leaders will simply cancel them… It could be a temporary setback…If China’s projects are affected, there could be short term liability issues,” Hu said.
He said there is competition between local parties and between India and China in Maldives.
“It is much more important to be balanced. Only a balanced diplomacy could serve in the long-term development. It should not be pitting one card against the other and take things to ground zero. That would be more disruptive,” he said.
Hu is of the view that China should be more cautious about its investments in future. It should develop more domestic consensus for its projects under the BRI or it should invest overseas in such projects that could be completed during the term of a government in the country concerned.
He also said India and China should work out some understanding for model cooperation in Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lankaand African countries.
“We should not be living in cold war mentality,” Hu said.