The Maldives pursues closer cooperation
The signing of a Free Trade Agreement last month between China and the Maldives, the first bilateral trade agreement between the two sides, is a landmark for the Indian Ocean nation. The two countries agreed to deepen cooperation in a wide range of areas, including marine environment, fisheries and tourism. The Maldives' main export is fish, primarily skipjack and yellow-fin tuna, either processed and canned or fresh sold at a premium, thanks to the sustainable pole-and-line fishing techniques used by Maldivian fishermen. From our (the Maldives') perspective, the free trade pact with China will help businesses that export fish products, by giving them the opportunity to expand exports to China at zero tariff.
But there is more to this relationship than mere commerce. The decision to pursue a free trade agreement was first mooted during President Xi Jinping's historic state visit to the Maldives in September 2014. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Maldives, and the two countries' relationship is more than just symbolic and thus endurable.
The first meeting of the China-Maldives Joint Committee on Marine Cooperation will be held soon. Law enforcement and security officials of the two countries will enhance exchanges and cooperation in anti-terrorism, anti-narcotics, personnel training, and other areas.
China is now the top donor country for infrastructure development in the Maldives. Two years ago, work began on the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge. The 1.39-kilometer-long bridge will have two lanes for four-wheeled vehicles as well as separate lanes for bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians.
The bridge will span from Malé's eastern edge to the western corner of the island of Hulhulé, where the Maldives' airport is located, and should be completed next year. The project is being financed with a $126 million grant aid and concessionary loan from China along with $12.6 million from the Maldivian state budget, and the contractor for the project is China Communications Construction Company Second Harbour Engineering. This is just one example of greater cooperation between the two countries.
We have reiterated our support for and are participating in China's 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The two sides will deepen pragmatic cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, which comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, to enhance connectivity.
On the surface the two countries could not be more dissimilar. China has an enormous land mass and boasts the world's largest population of more than 1.3 billion, while the Maldives is made up of hundreds of tiny islands with fewer than 400,000 people.
Those small islands are what attract Chinese tourists. We have been welcoming Chinese visitors to our islands for years, and their number is set to increase. They are one of our most popular visitors. And the Maldives has become one of the most desired destinations for Chinese tourists, according to the China National Tourism Administration.
During the first quarter of 2014, for example, the number of Chinese tourists accounted for 42.2 percent of all arrivals to the Maldives. In 2015, their number increased by 20.2 percent.
There are two main reasons for the Maldives' growing popularity as a destination for Chinese tourists. First is the increase in the number of direct flights between the Maldives and China. The second reason is the growing number of positive comments posted by Chinese tourists on social media platforms.
With the close links between the leaders of the two countries, and the mutual friendship between their peoples, the friendly relations will become a long-lasting affair. And with our recently concluded Free Trade Agreement, I expect bilateral relations to become even closer and mutually rewarding.
The author is the Maldives' minister of fisheries and agriculture, and a member of the Maldivian administration's Economic and Youth Council.