A diplomatic spat between China and Maldives over repayment of loans availed by Maldives to Chinese banks was averted just after a day it escalated publicly on the micro-blogging site Twitter. The principal actors, Zhang Lizhong, Chinese Ambassador to the island nation, and Mohamed Nasheed, the Speaker of Majlis, backed down on December 12.
Zhang Lizhong joined issue with Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldivian Speaker, on Twitter on December 11, debunking the Speaker’s claim that Maldives had to pay a huge sum of money to Chinese banks in the next two weeks. The next day, the Ambassador changed tack and posted on Twitter that Maldives indeed had to pay up, but the debt was not as much as the Maldivian Speaker had claimed.
Later the same day, both the actors backed down on Twitter, with each making conciliatory noises.
Mohamed Nasheed, the most popular politician in the archipelago nation, tweeted at 2.21 p.m.: “Over the next 14 days, Maldives Treasury must pay over $15m to Chinese banks. These banks have not, thus far given any concessions for these loans. These repayments represent over 50% of the government income over the next 14 days. After Covid, Maldives needs breathing space.”
In just under two hours, Zhang Lizhong rubbished Nasheed’s claim: “Good news,” he tweeted at 4.05 p.m. “According to the feedback from banks, there is no such 15 million payment due in 14 days. Check the account book and save it for the budget. Cheers.”
On December 12, the Ambassador tweeted: “Did some homework. For 2020, the payment due stated as $ 1719,535 is correct. For Hulhumale phase II 1530 housing unit, the stated due payment $2,375,000 is for a bank of third country, not for CDB. For Stelco project, the earliest payment is Mid-Jan.2021.” He also posted screenshots of some of the repayment details.
A twitter user, replying to the Ambassador, appended the Maldivian Finance Ministry’s “Statement of government guarantees” as on December 31, 2018, and asked: “The annual report of 2018 says HDC borrowed $42 million from CDB to develop 1530 housing units in Hulhumale Phase 3. When the due comes for these payments, will it be okay if we send a screenshot of your tweets instead of payments since you deny it?”
Following the Ambassador’s partial climbdown, Nasheed seized the opportunity to put the issue behind him. “Thank you for your concern, Excellency @AmbassadorZhang. We value our relationship with China. Let’s not wait until the 11th hour; let’s be done with this debt problem. Maldives needs a further 2 year grace period, or we will never be able to repay these loans,” he tweeted on December 12.
The Ambassador responded positively to the Speaker’s gesture, in just over half-an-hour: “Hon.Speaker, appreciate your explicit support for developing our traditional friendship further. Dialogue has already started on relevant issues. I trust, with joint efforts, there will be a proper and mutually-beneficial arrangement to inject more impetus to economic recovery.”
Ambassador Zhang is known for his repartees, which has earned him many friends from among the supporters of former President Abdulla Yameen. Soon after Yameen came to power in 2013, he preferred China over India for a series of contracts and development works. Yameen’s supporters see the Ambassador as an ally in the fight against the current regime, which is considered pro-India. In November, Nasheed had said that even if Maldivians sold their grandmother’s jewellery, the country would not be able to repay China. Zhang responded: “I must admit jewellery inherited from grandma is very precious, but with a price. Yet we prefer friendship which is priceless.”
In another instance, Dunya Maumoon, daughter of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and an unabashed supporter of China, alerted the Ambassador to an article published in India Today on November 10 on the problems that the Male international airport was facing over expansion. Zhang responded the same day: “Better read it as fiction. Better get information from the airport side of the Maldives to get correct answer.”
Mohamed Nasheed told the BBC in September that Maldives owed China US$ 3.1 billion. He said this included government guarantees and loans to the private sector. When Nasheed’s the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) assumed office in 2018, Indian officials had estimated the debt conservatively at around US$ 1.5 billion. Since the MDP came to power, the Maldivian government has been dependent on India for budgetary support. India had also announced a US$ 1.4 billion financial assistance to the country.