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Neighborhood diplomacy: Muizzu's China visit aims to strengthen ties

Yu Hong

Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu looks on during a ceremony in Male, the Maldives, November 17, 2023. /CFP
Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu looks on during a ceremony in Male, the Maldives, November 17, 2023. /CFP

Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu looks on during a ceremony in Male, the Maldives, November 17, 2023. /CFP

Editor's note: Yu Hong, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is a senior research fellow of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

At the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Mohamed Muizzu of the Republic of Maldives is paying a state visit to China from January 8 to 12. He is the first foreign head of state to visit China by invitation in 2024. It is also President Muizzu's first state visit to a foreign country since he took office last November.

This clearly shows that both the Chinese and Maldivian governments attach great importance to the visit of the newly-elected President of the Maldives to Beijing. It is expected that the two countries will reach much consensus and sign a series of bilateral cooperation agreements in a range of areas, including politics, trade, investment, infrastructure development, education, tourism, culture, and green economy.

On October 14, 1972, China and the Maldives established diplomatic relations. Since then, friendly relations between the two countries have gradually developed. In September 2014, China's President Xi paid a state visit to the Maldives, the first of its kind since the establishment of diplomatic relations. The two heads of state agreed to build a "future-oriented, all-round friendly and cooperative partnership" during Xi's visit. 

China views the Maldives as an important partner in its neighborhood diplomacy. The Maldives is strategically located in the heart of the Indian Ocean, at the crossroads of the East and the West, being a key shipping link along routes for transporting goods between Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East.

China's economic ties with the Maldives are strengthening. In 2022, the bilateral trade volume between China and the Maldives was $451 million, a year-on-year increase of 10.1 percent. In recent years, Chinese enterprises have accelerated their investment in the Maldives, covering tourism, fishery, transportation, energy, and other areas.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development plan initiated by President Xi Jinping in 2013 to develop new trade routes connecting China with the rest of the world via land and maritime networks to improve regional economic integration, boost trade, and stimulate economic growth. The Maldives has strengthened its infrastructure development cooperation with China under the BRI in recent years. Both countries have enjoyed fruitful results through BRI collaboration over the past decade.

In the Maldives, many BRI-related transport and other infrastructure construction projects were completed and put into operation, including the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, the Hulhumale affordable housing project, and the upgrading and expansion of the international airport in Male. These BRI projects address the Maldives' need for national socio-economic development and help to improve residents' living standards and social well-being. They also testify to the friendship between the Maldives and China.

In 2018, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge was officially opened. The total length of this bridge is 2 kilometers, including bridges, reclamation embankments, and roads. After the completion of the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, a new residential circle has been gradually formed around Male, the capital of the Maldives, which helps to relieve the traffic congestion within Male and allows tourists to travel quickly between Male and the airport island by land.

The Maldives' economy is highly dependent on its tourism sector. The country, with its stunning white sand beaches and tranquil turquoise waters, is a tourist paradise. It is a popular tourist destination for the Chinese people as well.

The global COVID-19 pandemic hit the Maldives' tourism sector hard. As tourists from China are crucial for the Maldives to recover its tourism and related service industries during the post-pandemic era, the authorities in Male are taking steps to attract more Chinese travelers to the country and explore the natural beauty of the Maldives and its cultural diversity.

Tourists disembark from a seaplane at a resort in Baa Atoll, Maldives, September 24, 2023. /CFP
Tourists disembark from a seaplane at a resort in Baa Atoll, Maldives, September 24, 2023. /CFP

Tourists disembark from a seaplane at a resort in Baa Atoll, Maldives, September 24, 2023. /CFP

The Maldives is rich in marine resources, seafood is one of its main exporting commodities. Reducing the Maldives' dependence on tourism, expanding and diversifying its exports, enhancing human capital development in the Maldives, strengthening and improving the health and education sectors, improving Maldives' infrastructure, and promoting the use of clean energy are the priorities for the Maldives' new government. China could play a bigger role in the socio-economic and infrastructure development of the Maldives. Male anticipates developing wide-ranging bilateral ties with Beijing.

Under the new President Muizzu, the Maldives government is shifting its long-standing "India First" policy as implemented by Muizzu's predecessors, and now is pursuing a more independent foreign policy famous for its "pro-Maldives" stance.

For both historical and geographical reasons, the Maldives has close political and social ties with India and regards India as its most important neighbor and partner. Essentially, the Maldives has long pursued an "India First" foreign policy in the past.

President Muizzu said that the Maldives has no intention to encourage geopolitical competition between major powers, and his government is seeking to develop friendly ties with all countries, including India and China.

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