A 20-MINUTE FERRY RIDE from the Maldivian capital, Malé, lies Hulhumalé, a desolate strip of reclaimed land. Rows of identical four-storey apartment buildings line the artificial island, distinguishable only by metres-high numbers painted on their facades. Buses circle on two routes, slowing to a crawl for speed bumps. The settlement currently numbers 1,000 apartments, and is nicknamed China Town.
On a Friday in mid January, construction workers celebrated the start of a new phase of building that will add another 1,500 apartments to what is already the Maldives’ largest settlement project. Chen Yun, a 26-year-old technical engineer from Hunan province, joined them as they grilled lamb on the project site, where Maldivian and Chinese flags flew in unison. Chen, who arrived here in December 2010, during the project’s early stages, works for the China Machinery Engineering Corporation, and lives on Hulhumalé in shed-like temporary housing with about 20 other colleagues. We spoke in an air-conditioned dining room for the Chinese staff; Mandarin satellite television played on one wall, and Chen casually ashed his cigarette on to the floor. He told me another 80 Chinese were soon to arrive, to help supervise a crew of about 300 Bangladeshi migrant workers.
China Town is funded by official Chinese loans, and typifies a sharp rise in the country’s investment in the Maldives over recent years. (The Maldivian government has not issued any reliable account of the inflows, and the Chinese government has released no total numbers.) The project’s foundation stone was laid during the presidency of Mohamed Nasheed, who ended three decades of rule by the strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom with victory in a 2008 election. The new president maintained friendly ties with China, and also courted Western powers and India. But Nasheed resigned in February 2012, in what he later described as a coup by Gayoom’s supporters. China was among the first countries to back the new government, and the Maldives has since pivoted towards an increasing reliance on the Asian giant, to the cost of India and the West. A few months after his election to power in November 2013, the country’s current president, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (a half-brother and loyalist of his namesake and predecessor), announced a Chinese grant of $8.2 million “for the implementation of developmental projects and the advancement of public services.” The expansion of China Town was inaugurated by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, on a visit to the Maldives in September—the first time a Chinese head of state had travelled to Asia’s smallest country. Besides the settlement, China is also sponsoring a major port in the north of the island country, bridges, roads, and more.
Wittingly or not, the Maldives has become a key battleground in the contest to secure sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. In an article published by a local news portal during his visit, Xi suggested the resurrection of a maritime Silk Road—sea routes that linked imperial China to Africa and southern and western Asia. Chinese histories record tribute paid to the emperor by a Maldivian king in the seventh century, and Zheng He, China’s most celebrated maritime explorer, reportedly stopped at the atolls with his giant armada, in the fifteenth century. Though the Maldives lie thousands of kilometres from the Chinese mainland, China still describes the island country as a neighbour. The Maldivian government is happy with the attention: after talks with Xi in September, Yameen said publicly that “the Maldives is honoured to now feature among China’s partners.” Opposition groups, however, complain of a lack of transparency on the terms of the alliance, and the issue has created yet another fault line in the country’s deeply polarised politics. But while the debate over the Maldives’ international alignment continues, China is steadily entrenching its interests.
In a nondescript office in Malé, I met a former senior government official who rose through the Gayoom government before being removed by Nasheed. “The Indians were slow to react to the coup,” he told me, after asking not to be identified. “India was not first in offering aid … China saw that as its moment. We swapped India, a regional hegemon with an imperialistic mind, with China and its global strategic interests.” But, he said, despite the general assumption that Nasheed was “India’s man,” Chinese infrastructure projects had advanced quietly throughout his tenure. “The Chinese were more silent, they’d give the money and wait,” he said. China has been wooing the Maldives for a long time. The Chinese premier Zhu Rongji visited in 2001, and inaugurated a housing estate. Shortly thereafter, China built offices for the Maldivian foreign ministry and cancelled some debt. It also sent aid after the 2004 tsunami. In November 2011, China became the only non-South Asian country to set up an embassy in Malé.
All of that is dwarfed by developments since Nasheed’s departure. In 2012, the government cancelled a landmark $511-million deal with an Indian company to enlarge Malé’s international airport. During Xi’s visit the Maldivian government contracted a Chinese company for the project instead. According to statements from the president’s office, the two governments have also signed agreements for a power station, and a bridge connecting the capital to its airport. In December, Yameen launched construction on a Chinese road to link four islands of a southern atoll. Several Chinese residents of Malé told me they met compatriots headed to the country’s north in early January to start work on a trans-shipment port—a crucial part of the maritime Silk Road. “We don’t know the terms of the Silk Road, we just know it will bring millions to our economy,” the former official said, arguing that these new projects enjoyed widespread popularity.
To attract further investment, in April last year Yameen announced plans to create special economic zones in some of the country’s remotest areas, including the far north, where the port is planned. A corresponding bill, which allows for offshore banking in these areas, was pushed through parliament in September. Following two days of talks in Malé last month, China’s ministry of commerce announced a consensus on creating the first such zone for Chinese firms and investors.
These high-profile projects have made the government’s China policy a hot topic in the domestic political debate. At a rally organised by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party in Malé in January, I met Mabrouq Azeez, a bulky 26-year-old with a graduate degree in politics, as he prepared to address an audience of several hundred people ahead of the party’s leader, Nasheed. He wore, like the former president, a white shirt and a yellow tie, reflecting the party’s colours. Azeez is among many young Maldivians who saw the fall of Nasheed’s government as a return to the conservativism and corruption of the Gayoom clique. Though Azeez has strong ties to China himself—he worked in Guangzhou for two years as a trader—he is critical of the current administration’s policies. “There is an ideological divide,” he told me. “We have no cultural or historic ties that are relevant to current society with China. We do have those relationships with India, and among the youth we have those relationships with the West.” He accused the government of a lack of transparency. “The only thing we know is that they are going to deal with China,” he said, but “we don’t know to how much debt” the government will assume, or “what concessions they are making.”
The government has repeatedly dismissed such allegations. “Comments about how this government has burnt its bilateral ties with India and Europe and replaced said countries with China are an attempt to deceive the public born out envy of this administration’s successes,” the minister of economic development said at a press conference in December. I tried to speak to the minister myself, but he cancelled several appointments at the last minute and did not reply to emailed questions. Staff at the Chinese embassy did not respond to requests for an interview.
Meanwhile, the rising investment has galvanised bilateral cultural ties. Maldives National University launched a Chinese language programme in 2012, and its dean of arts told me of talks to set up a Confucius Institute—an organisation to promote Chinese culture, affiliated with the Chinese ministry of education. The CEO of DhiTV, a local broadcaster, said that Chinese state media has offered free video content to Maldivian outlets since last year. “Reuters and AP are too expensive, and they don’t have enough content on South Asia,” he explained. “If we get material free of charge, we will give them 15 to 20 minutes.”
Chinese tourism is also thriving—an official at the tourism ministry told me China accounted for about a third of the approximately 1.4 million visitors in 2014. Resorts, restaurants and souvenir shops are quickly adapting. An upscale Chinese restaurant next to the presidential residence in Malé offers fish-head and tofu soup, dumplings and typhoon-shelter crabs. The cooks boasted that they had prepared breakfast for President Xi’s delegation—steamed buns, eggplant, and other dishes.
In China Town, Chen was glad for a taste of home too. A chef from his home province, Hunan, had taught a Bangladeshi worker to cook the spicy food typical of the region. “It took half a year to get used to living here,” he said, but he still missed the bars and entertainment back in China. He recalled meeting Xi, and listening to the president’s humorous, impromptu speech to local Chinese residents. “He spoke of his personal interest in our work and how we contribute to his vision for China’s role in South Asia, the new Silk Road here.” Chen planned to stay until the expansion of China Town is complete—in 2017, if all goes as scheduled.
Patrick Boehler is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong, who has reported on Chinese investments abroad for several years. He teaches journalism at the University of Hong Kong.