China, the renewed friendship | Joseph Muscat

Saviour Balzan catches up with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the end of his visit in China

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang

Just before leaving the Huaxi State compound built originally for the Communist elite, Joseph Muscat concedes the press some time for an interview in the lavishness of his private quarters.

He first declined a short interview for a round-up on his Chinese visit’s highlights, before his spokesperson relented. So, what’s next for Malta and the Asian superpower?

 “We were the first European Union country to seal an agreement with the Chinese government. While other countries have statements of intent, we managed to have a memorandum of understanding with a plan agreed to between the two countries.  A steering committee will meet later this year to implement this agreement.”

Muscat said that the agreement will mean Chinese companies can move very fast. “A decision to allow state-owned companies to enter into a business relationship will do away with a lot of red tape.”

But are the Chinese genuinely interested in Malta, or has the exceptional VIP treatment throughout the visit been just a show of Chinese diplomacy?

“I have no doubt about Chinese intentions. I am well informed that the Chinese authorities were always interested in doing business with Malta. It is also incorrect to think that the Chinese are interested in Malta because of political reasons. None of the state-owned companies are willing to invest if there isn’t an economic angle.

“Why wasn’t there business between the two countries?  I can only say that a joint commission between the two countries has been pending since 2011. The attitude of the former government was not to actively promote business with China.  I cannot say that [Gonzi’s] government was wrong, but it was Eurocentric – perhaps that was what was needed at the time. We changed all this. But then again, I cannot say how I would have acted at the time. Today, the time is ripe to do business with China, and that is why we have radically changed our position.”

Muscat avoids hitting out at the Gonzi administration: it’s an open secret that he has unreserved respect for Lawrence Gonzi, a different attitude to his present one towards Simon Busuttil.

“China has an enormous amount of dollars… we are talking of trillions of dollars.  The dynamics of globalisation mean that if China does not dispose of them in the next 15 to 20 years they have a good chance of losing that money. They are looking at opportunities, anyone who comes with the right offer, and I am not saying this myself. Premier Li Keqiang said it himself, about the available funds and he also spoke of millions of Chinese who would be travelling to other countries.

“We are not alone here. Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Matteo Renzi and Hollande and others form part of the same group. They all came with offers, some were taken, others not. We have made some offers, and we can base the success of our offers on our competitive advantage.”

Muscat says three considerations have made Malta attractive to China. Its geographical proximity to the African continent which he says “has the greatest growth potential… China is very interested in Africa”; then there Malta’s high-quality human capital at a competitive and reasonable cost; and finally, the island’s legislative agility, which gives investors the framework to operate effectively.

He says the Chinese have the memory of an elephant. “They will not forget that Malta was the fifth country to recognise it as a nation. They remember what happened decades ago.  There is goodwill too, but that is not enough. “

He obviously refers to Dom Mintoff’s memorable visit to China under Mao Zedong, when Beijing’s roads were lined with thousands of Chinese children chanting slogans in Maltese, praising the Maltese premier. Mintoff had then defied the international mood to recognise the People’s Republic of China.

Back to present days, this Maltese delegation has attracted even more interest with the addition of Malta Enterprise trade envoy Sai Mizzi Liang, the wife of energy minister Konrad Mizzi, whose €3,000 monthly salary was undisclosed up until this week.

“I think the Opposition’s criticism of Mizzi Liang, being the minister’s wife was legitimate. But she has delivered and that is the most important thing. It is up to me to decide when to divulge the conditions of Sai Mizzi Liang,” he insists.

But would it not have been appropriate to have replied to the demands of the press about Sai Mizzi Liang last year, when MaltaToday filed an official freedom of information request? “Perhaps we should have addressed the issue before, but I can only say that Mizzi Liang’s appointment contributed to the agreement we now have.  That would not have happened without her intervention. Having said this, she has said that she has no objection to having her FS3 published.”

He was asked about the perks, that do not appear in the FS3 form. “The allowances are similar to those awarded to ambassadors. There is nothing different in Sai Mizzi Liang’s case.”

The prospects of tourism from China were also raised.

“The Chinese tourist is no different to the American tourist who visits Europe to see more than one country. We are looking at getting over Chinese tourists who would visit Malta as part of a package. We are talking to cruise liner companies to look into this idea. When we concretise this, we do not need to enter into any new agreements, this is covered by the memorandum and articles.”

The Maltese embassy today issues around 300 visas a month and Muscat says he wants to improve waiting times. “The Italians have reduced the time to issue a Schengen visa by 36 hours. With our limited resources, the time we take is 10 days.”

He also reveals his intention of working on an air link with China: a rather ambitious project that is also a gamble. “We are looking at an air link, not to Beijing but to a provincial town. And we have discussed this, but the discussions here do not only take place on a political level, but also on a commercial level. I know Air Malta does not have the capability, but Air Malta is aware of this opportunity and we are looking at all the options.”