Maldives, China sign 20 agreements after Muizzu-Xi meeting amid diplomatic row with India

The agreements signed included tourism cooperation, disaster risk reduction, blue economy and strengthening investment in the digital economy.

January 11, 2024 02:05 am | Updated 06:19 pm IST - Beijing

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on January 10, 2024.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on January 10, 2024. | Photo Credit: via Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday held in-depth talks with his Maldivian counterpart Mohamed Muizzu following which the two countries signed 20 "key" agreements, including one on tourism cooperation, and announced the elevation of their bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.

Mr. Muizzu said he was honoured to pay his first state visit to China and become the first foreign head of state that China has hosted this year, fully demonstrating the great importance both sides attach to the development of bilateral relations.

Mr. Xi stressed that China respects and supports the Maldives in exploring a development path suited to its national conditions. China also supports the Maldives firmly in safeguarding its national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Muizzu announced the elevation of bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership, it said.

"20 key agreements were signed today between the Government of the Maldives and the Government of China this afternoon and both the Presidents witnessed the signing ceremony," Maldivian President's office said in a post on X.

The agreements signed included tourism cooperation, disaster risk reduction, blue economy and strengthening investment in the digital economy. China will also provide grant assistance to the Maldives, but the amount was not disclosed.

The agreements also included jointly accelerating the formulation of the Cooperation Plan on the Belt and Road Initiative, social housing project on Fushidhiggaru Falhu, fisheries products processing factories and the re-development of Male’ and Villimale’ Roads Development Projects.

Mr. Muizzu and his wife Sajida Mohammad were given a ceremonial red carpet welcome at the Great Hall of People. President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan later hosted a state banquet in their honour.

Maldives-India row

Mr. Muizzu’s visit to China is marred by the diplomatic row with India over derogatory remarks by his ministers against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the release of a report by the EU Election Observation Mission of Maldives that said the ruling coalition of Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People's National Congress (PNC) deployed anti-India sentiments and attempted to spread disinformation in the 2023 presidential elections in which Mr. Muizzu won.

The EU report cast a shadow over Mr. Muizzu’s Presidential election last November as he contested as part of PPM headed at that time by former pro-China President Abdullah Yameen, who is currently serving a prison sentence for corruption.

Soon after his election, President Muizzu fell out with former pro-China leader Yameen, regarded as his mentor, and opted to pursue his own foreign and domestic policy.

Under Yameen's Presidency, China carried out major infrastructure projects amid allegations of debt traps by some influential politicians of the Maldives.

Angry with Mr. Muizzu, Mr. Yameen, who is currently serving a prison sentence for corruption, quit the (PPM) and formed his own political party called from jail to oppose Mr. Muizzu.

The EU report slams both the parties for whipping up an anti-India campaign. The EU observers found the PPM-PNC’s presidential campaign included anti-India sentiments, based on fears of Indian influences and anxiety regarding the presence of Indian military personnel inside the Maldives.

“This theme was subject to multiple online disinformation attempts,” the report said.

In his remarks, President Xi said China stands ready to exchange governance experience with the Maldives, strengthen the synergy of development strategies, advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, and set a new benchmark for the China-Maldives friendship, Xi said.

He said China will support more Maldivian students to study in China and promote more direct flights between the two countries.

President Muizzu said the Maldives pursues the one-China policy firmly. Firm mutual support in safeguarding national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity is a solid foundation for the sustained and sound development of Maldives-China relations, Xinhua quoted him as saying.

Mr. Muizzu, who is due to return home on January 12, is already slammed by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) headed by former President Solih for rupturing relations with India. The MDP still has the majority in Parliament.

Also Read | “Our Government must make tougher stand to repair relation with India” Maldives Opposition Leader

Also, the Parliament polls are scheduled to take place in March in which Mr. Muizzu has to contest against PNC and MDP.

Mr. Muizzu’s visit to China is also taking place amid the row with India leading to a spate of cancellations of reservations by Indian tourists, who constitute the largest number of visitors to the tourism-dependent island nation.

Facing backlash from Indian tourists, Mr. Muizzu appealed to China to "intensify" efforts to send more tourists to his country.

"China was our (Maldives') number one market (for tourism) pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position," he said.

Besides talks with Mr. Xi, Mr. Muizzu is also due to meet Chinese Premier Li Qiang and other senior officials in the next two days.

His appeal for more Chinese tourists came amid a diplomatic row with India.

Mr. Muizzu's government suspended three deputy ministers for their derogatory posts on social media.

Also, the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) strongly condemned the derogatory comments.

According to data released by the Maldives Tourism Ministry earlier, India remained the largest tourist market for the country in 2023 with Russia in second place followed by China in the third.

The highest number of visitors to the Maldives were from India, with 209,198 arrivals, followed by Russia in second place with 209,146 arrivals, and China in third place with 187,118 arrivals.

China-Maldives bilateral trade in 2022 totalled to USD 451.29 million of which China’s exports constituted $451.29 million against $60,000 of exports from Maldives.

Mr. Muizzu also sought investments from Chinese companies for 11 projects at the Maldives Investment Forum.

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