Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid met his counterpart S. Jaishankar on Friday for the first India-Maldives Joint Commission to be held in four years. In an exclusive interview, he said bilateral ties on development projects are going apace, but also that the Maldives is staying the course on Chinese projects, despite misgivings over past loans.
Your government has been in office for a year now. How is India-Maldives development progressing?
Unfortunately since 2015, we have not had a joint commission meeting, for obvious reasons, because we did not have the best of relations. I think it is essential that we continue the formal process. Since President [Ibrahim Mohamed] Solih took office a year ago, we have had a whirlwind relationship; the leaders have met so many times, in Male, Delhi and New York. The desire they both have is to get things done, to consolidate the relationship.
In particular, India has announced $1.4 billion in budgetary support in addition to a $8,000-million line of credit and others. Would you prefer India’s focus to be on small development projects (SDPs) or in large infrastructure projects?
The good thing about the Indian assistance at present is that it is spread out. Already we have more than 100 million rupiah projects awarded which have social impact, and some of those have been completed in record time. We have an India-assisted convention centre on one of the islands, which has brought in livelihood for people as well as fish processing projects. Last week, the leaders announced three more projects.
What are your priorities on defence assistance? In the Yameen government’s tenure, there were many irritants between the two countries.
Our security relationship with India goes back decades. Given the geographical location of India and the Maldives, it is India which is placed best to come to Maldives assistance immediately. India has the means and the location, but it also has the generous heart towards the Maldives, which actually makes the security relationship our reality.
What has changed geopolitically is China’s foray in the oceans. Last year, Chinese warships docked in Male harbour, causing deep misgivings in India. Has New Delhi asked you for assurances that this will not happen again?
We have to ensure that the Indian Ocean remains peaceful, which is necessary for the stability of the Maldives. If we have rivalries play out in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives will suffer and we will not let other countries bring their disputes to our oceans. The Maldives is a large ocean state, with more ocean than land. So for us, the freedom of navigation, the total concept of the Indo-Pacific strategy is paramount, and we are fully part of it. In Washington this year, I assured Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that we will play our role as the heart of the Indian Ocean.
How will your government deal with the issue of China’s loans and infrastructure projects?
What I tried to say is that, to be fair to China, it has been a generous donor. It has invested in housing and infrastructure projects. There has been irresponsible borrowing by the previous government and unfortunately we have to deal with it. I was in Beijing in September and met the State Councillor and I found in the Chinese leadership goodwill to work with us.
That is a long way from the MDP’s election campaign a year ago, where you said your government would cancel Chinese loans, projects would be stopped and the FTA would be revoked, and debt restructured. Does this mean the reality of governance is changing your perspective on China?
Our government’s bone to pick is with the previous government. And to deal with the debt that we have had to face more practically. And that is why we are working and talking with everyone.
Speaker and Party leader Mohammad Nasheed has said that the Maldives wants to “rid itself” of the Chinese debt. Is that your position?
No comment. I think the Speaker should be allowed to speak for himself.
India is keen to see the Maldives as an international cricketing nation and build a cricket stadium there. How far has that project come?
Land has been allocated. India is not just building infrastructure but capacity. Our teams are already in India, being trained, and our trainers and coaches are also being trained, for which we are very grateful. Who knows, we may one day even beat the Indian team (laughs).