Beijing: Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu on Thursday met Chinese Premier Li Qiang and discussed ways to increase the number of tourists from China to his tourism-dependent country, besides the implementation of a host of new projects that Beijing has committed to undertake during his ongoing visit. After his high-profile meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday after which the two countries signed 20 agreements, Muizzu on the penultimate day of his five-day visit met Li and deliberated on increasing cooperation in e-commerce, the capital Male development plan, airport expansion and other development projects.
They also discussed increasing direct flights and further cooperation in tourism, a readout posted on the website of the Maldives President’s office said. With Muizzu, regarded as a pro-China leader, now entangled in a diplomatic row with India after three of his ministers posted derogatory remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he has been pressing Beijing to intensify efforts to increase Chinese tourist numbers to his country amid reports of spate cancellation of reservations by Indian tourists in protest against the Maldives ministers derogatory comments.
Though Muizzu has suspended three deputy ministers who posted the derogatory comments, this has already resulted in backlash from Indian tourists who flocked in far larger numbers to the Maldives. China figured third after Russia in terms of number of tourists to the Indian Ocean island nation in 2023.
Chinese analysts say the strategically placed Maldives with a host of islands is significant for expanding China’s influence in the Indian Ocean region. Although Maldives is a small country in terms of land area and population, in terms of geopolitics, it has very high strategic significance, Zhao Gancheng, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies said.
“The Indian Ocean is far from us, but it’s extremely important to the economic and energy security of our country, as well as the BRI, so China needs to try its best to make friends in the region,” Zhao told state-run Global Times. China’s efforts to increase its influence in the Maldives took a backseat as the previous president Mohammad Solih during his tenure followed an India-first policy though he maintained good ties with China.
Muizzu’s visit to China is marred by the diplomatic row with India 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 Muizzu won.
Since his arrival, Muizzu has been asking China to increase its tourist numbers in the Maldives and take them to the post-Covid period over four years ago when Chinese tourists topped the list. During his meeting with Muizzu, Li said that China-Maldives ties are based on sovereign equality, mutual respect, and shared historical ties.
Li told Muizzu that China proposed to offer avenues of support to Maldivians in various fields, including scholarship opportunities, vocational training, sports training, fisheries and maritime cooperation, ecological cooperation, metrological technologies, and more, the readout said.
Muizzu stated that he hoped to strengthen ties in numerous areas of shared interest and take bilateral relations between the Maldives and China to new heights during his administration. In his meeting with Xi on Wednesday, 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.
He also extended his government’s support to Xi’s Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilisation Initiative aimed at extending China’s influence in the world besides the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Under BRI, China has invested in several projects in the Maldives. Muizzu’s visit to China will conclude on Friday.