www.china.org.cn: Mr. Ambassador, it is my great honor to have this conversation with you. We know that Maldives is one of the first countries to actively respond to BRI, so why it is so interested in this initiative from the very beginning?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: You're right. We are one of the first countries in South Asia to join the BRI. In December 2014, we signed an MOU with the Chinese government to jointly build the 21st Century Silk Road. I think why we did this is because we are also part of the ancient Silk Road, especially the Spicy Road. Maldives is in a very strategic position in Indian Ocean. We have a lot of tourist in the past, even from China. When they go to trade to Africa, they used to stop in Africa to sell their products, and also to replenish boats. So we have been a part of this Silk Road from a very long time. Coming back to the present, we feel that the BRI is a very important initiative. At a time when the world is going through a lot of changes, we have gone through the Millennium Development Goals, and we have gone through a lot other development initiatives in the past, multilateral initiatives. But right now the world needs a regional initiative that can be used regardless of the size of the country, so that is the reason we joined the BRI. We think that the Belt and Road is not for specific countries, big countries or small countries. We can all join together in order to benefit from the Belt and Road. For the Maldives government, it is a very import initiative. We feel that it will enable not only regional development, but also global development, and it can also create opportunities for small countries like Maldives to play a larger role in the international arena, especially in the field of commercial diplomacy as well. So there are many reasons why we feel it is very important. As you rightfully said, we support the BRI wholeheartedly.
www.china.org.cn: so that is why the initiative has gained so many achievements in such a short time, right? It is only over three years since President XI Jinping proposed this initiative.
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: I think the timing was very right for an initiative such as this. And now after recent changes, political changes in many countries, we are going through a period when we are questioning the importance of free trade. We are talking about closing our borders to create protection barriers. But I think the global economy gas gained very much in the past decade due to open trade and open borders. And I think it is very important to keep this momentum going. Of course, globalization has had many negative impacts, and we cannot deny it. But globalization has been beneficial for many people. So I think it is not the time to roll back the globalization, and an initiative such as BRI can help to bring a new dimension to globalization, and bring in more people, whether they are rich or poor, into global development. I think this is the basic thing that we are looking for in the Belt and Road.
www.china.org.cn: we see over the past ten years that Maldives economic growth has gone through a great fluctuation because of the global financial crisis and some natural disasters, so what is the main problem facing Maldives economic development that needs to be solved right now?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: The Maldives economy is very one-dimensional. Before tourism was introduced in 1972, our economy was based on fishing. Fishing was our main economic activity. But in 1972 we started tourism, and since then tourism has taken over. It is the top economic activity in the country. As you rightfully said, the problem of tourism is that we are at mercy of international market, and we are at mercy of what is going on in the global economy. When there is a financial crisis, or health crisis, such as SARS, our tourism suffers a lot. People stop coming, and there is difficulty in filling our beds. So it is a very difficult situation. The Maldives government right now is looking at how we can diversify, because tourism alone cannot sustain. Although we have a very small population, our dreams are very big. So in order to achieve our dreams, we need to diversify our economy, especially since our President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom came into power in 2013, we are going through an economic transformation program. We need to diversity into many other areas, manufacturing, service industry and financial industry. So that is what we are trying to do. For us, if you don’t diversify our economy, it will always be at the mercy of international market movement. Whenever there is something happening in Europe, we will suffer, our economy will suffer and our tourism will suffer. So that is the reason we try to diversify our economy. As long as we continue our economy as it is now, we are going to face more challenges in the future. So we want to proactively find a way to overcome these challenges and find a way to sustain our development so that we can deliver more development benefits to our people.
www.china.org.cn: So how is the BRI going help with the diversity of the economy or the economic transition?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: I think the one thing that we are looking through the BRI is investment and finance of some of our projects. Already Maldives is also one of the founding members of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), so through the bank and other mechanisms, like the Silk Road Fund, we are looking at opportunities of financing some of our big infrastructure development projects. So that is how we are looking at the Belt and Road as a mechanism that we can use in our economy transformation project. When you are talking about transforming our economy, we are looking at very drastic changes. We don’t have many infrastructure, we don’t have huge port or other such infrastructure, so we need funds, finance, know-how and technology, and I think through the Belt and Road, and through China and other countries that are part of the Belt and Road, we will be able to get the finance, know-how, technology. So all these things are very important for our economic transformation, so that is why we are looking at Belt and Road for us to be part of Belt and Road, and then get opportunity through the Belt and Road for this transformation project.
www.china.org.cn: so that is not about China and Maldives only, but also about cooperation between Maldives and other countries.
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: Belt and Road is not just a single line of countries. It has many connections for all the countries along the Belt and Road, and even those that are not on the Belt and Road. So we are creating connectivity between all these countries. We are not linking politically, but also economically, people-to-people contact, and technology transfer. So all the connections are there, so it’s up to the individual country see which connection they will be using. We will be looking at which country can offer us finance, which country can offer us technologies. That is how we are going to push forward the Belt and Road.
www.china.org.cn: Let’s talk about China-Maldives cooperation under the framework of BRI. We know that China has begun helping Maldives building Cross-Sea Bridge which connects Male and the airport island. Why this project is taken as Maldives’ Century Project?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: I think the bridge represents the next stage of development that we want to go. If you know the geography of Maldives: the Male is the capital, and it is very crowded. In Male, we have half of our total population. So we have to find a way to ease the condition in Male, and to create a development center in the Male area. So naturally, we have the airport, and next to the airport we have a new city that is being built up. So the bridge will link Male to the airport and to the new city. It will help take some people out of Male, and it will also create connectivity between Male, the airport and the new city. So in that respect, it is very important. It is also a social project as well, because once we are able to reduce the condition in Male, it will also help reduce a lot of social problems in Male. You ask me why it is import between China and Maldives. Since we established diplomatic relations in October 1972, we have been developing cooperation with China, one of which was social housing project in the 1980s’. But since President XI Jinping visited Maldives in 2014, our relationship has gone through a sea change. I always describe relationship between Maldives and China as “before XI Jinping’s visit” and “after XI Jinping’s visit”. So since then our relationship is at all-time high. I think the bridge represents the new relationship of win-win cooperation between the two countries, and that is why it is so important. Therefore, it is acclaimed as China-Maldives Friendship Bridge. Once the bridge is finished, people go to Maldives and see how two countries can cooperate. Maldives is the smallest country in the world, and China is one of the biggest countries in the world, but we are cooperating because we know there are win-win opportunities for both countries, and that is what the bridge represents.
www.china.org.cn: The 5th round of China-Maldives FTA negotiation was held in March, so what achievements have been made?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: I am very happy to say that we have concluded all the initial negotiations. We have five rounds, and right now what we need to do is to go through some domestic processes. Once the two governments agree on the text of the FTA, we are ready to sign. We are hopeful that we are able to sign the FTA in the second half of this year. This FTA is also very important, both as a reflection of the relationship between the two countries and also for Maldives’ economy. By signing this FTA, we will be showing the world both small countries and big countries can cooperate, no matter the size of the economy. If you look at the economy size of both countries, it is very imbalanced: Maldives is very small economy, and China is one of the biggest economies in the world. But we are able to come together, and we are able to find mutually beneficial, win-win situation in commerce and trade. And that is why we agree to go to this FTA. Both parties have been very forthcoming and very supportive in concluding this FTA at a very early stage. It has been only two years since we started the discussion, and now we are at stage of finalizing and signing the document. And it is going to create a very important impetus for economy development, especially for Maldives’ small businesses and commercial entities, because we will be getting market access to big countries like China, and for the Chinese also. Although Maldives is a small country, we are in a position where we can get access to the South Asian market through Maldives. So once you enter into Maldives market, you can access to the South Asian market, so there are many beneficial opportunities for both sides by signing this FTA.
www.china.org.cn: What would be the key aspects or areas in the two countries’ future of economic and trade cooperation?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: You know Maldives’ export is not very big. Our main export is fish, and then we have services, tourism and construction. So for Maldives, the most benefit we look for is to export fish product to China. China has many products and goods, and the trade between our two countries is expanding. Last year, the trade volume was around three hundred million US dollars between our two countries, and it keeps growing every year. For Chinese, there are many opportunities for infrastructure team, to import products, to seek South Asian market through Maldives. And we are also looking at financial services, travel and leisure services. Maldives’ tourism economy is one of the biggest and most profitable tourism industries in the whole world. So Chinese companies and enterprises will have access to those areas as well. So this FTA covers both commodities and services, so there are many opportunities for the Chinese commercial enterprises through the FTA, and also for the Maldives enterprises.
www.china.org.cn: Besides the economic cooperation, we believe that the BRI is also about people-to-people exchanges. It is about changing people’s lives. So how do Maldivian feel about this initiative?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: I think the cultural exchange is a very important part for the Belt and Road, because when people meet, it creates harmony and it creates trust. When you trade, it is just goods or money exchange. But when people meet, it creates trust and understanding between people, and this is one of the most important aspects of the component of the Belt and Road. Of course due to tourism, Maldivians and Chinese are becoming closer. China is our biggest tourism market, close to 30% of all visitors come from China. So the Chinese people know Maldives very well, and it makes my job very easy, because wherever I go in China, they know Maldives. So that links, that connections between people, are created through our tourism. With Belt and Road, we have more opportunities to create this. As I speak right now, we have a group of five Maldivian artists in China right now. They are here for an exchange program, so they will be working together with Chinese artists, and they will be able to know about the Chinese culture, and the Chinese artists will know about Maldivian art tradition. And we look forward more of these opportunities in the future.
www.china.org.cn: Speaking of tourism, will Maldives and China have more cooperation in the future?
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: Of course. I am happy to know that some Chinese private investors are investing in the tourism sector. Maldives tourism initially was very European-oriented. But since the Chinese started coming over every year in the past six or seven years, we have changed our tourism products as well to suit the Chinese market. And now the Chinse people, the Chinese enterprises, also know the value of this. So a lot of Chinese people are now coming and investing in the tourism industry. We are also looking at increasing air links between Chinese cities and Male. Because, as you know, the most important thing if you want to have a sustainable tourism industry is to get people. Already our national carrier flies many of the Chinese cities, but we are looking at more air links between Chinese cities and Male. Once our tourism product increases, the number of visitors can also increase. Right now, we are also having a huge project for airport; it is also being done with the assistance of the Chinese government. Once the airport is finished, once we have new resorts (15 new resorts) in the next couple of years, we need more travelers from China to come to Male. We are expecting about one million each year from China. I think it is an achievable target, but for that we need more airlines to fly from China to Maldives. And Maldives government is very ready to assist these airlines to come to Maldives to bring these new visitors every year.
www.china.org.cn: www.china.org.cn is launching its BRI website in both English and Chinese. It will be our great honor if you address a few words to our website.
Ambassador Mohamed Faisal: I wish your website all the best. I think it is very import for the NGO, for the media, for others, to be an active part in BRI. You cannot just leave to the government to promote the Belt and Road. Organizations, media, journalists, NGOs---they have a very important role to play, not only to tell people about the Belt and Road, but also to find opportunities through the Belt and Road. You can have cooperation with journalists, media of other countries as well. So I wish china.org.cn all the best, and I am sure your website and your news agency will play a huge part in the promotion of the Belt and Road, telling people the opportunities from the Belt and Road. The Maldives Embassy in China and Maldives government will remain committed to be part of the Belt and Road, and we will provide all our support to make this very successful initiative for the world. Thank you very much!