Maldives FTA will benefit entire region, insists China

China Tuesday defended its much-criticized free trade agreement with Maldives, saying it serves the interests of the two countries and the region amid Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom's maiden visit to the global superpower.

Speaker Abdulla Maseeh had called in an emergency parliament session on Wednesday to accept the agreement before immediately sending it for the national security committee for review. The committee also with government majority had signed off on the agreement in less than 10 minutes sparking opposition outrage and concern saying that lawmakers "had not even seen the actual agreement."

Thirty lawmakers present during the late Wednesday sitting voted in favour of signing the agreement, with most government MPs echoing the benefits of the pact to the archipelago with of course no opposition lawmaker present.

The Maldives' fast-tracking of the FTA with China was understandably widely reported in the Indian media saying that Sino-Maldivian trade balance remains considerably in favour of China, and there are concerns that the FTA will further increase the deficit and push Maldives towards a debt trap like Sri Lanka -- an issue that has alarmed Delhi amid apprehensions of neighbourhood plunging into economic crisis in future.

President Yameen will hold talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and the two the countries are expected to sign more agreements during the four-day visit which will be closely watched in India.

“We hope through this visit to enhance political mutual trust and deepen cooperation and move forward sound and steady development of bilateral relations and thus bring benefit to the two peoples,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shaung was quoted by some media sources.

China’s forays into Maldives, located in India’s backyard in the Indian Ocean has sparked concerns in New Delhi.

President Yameen also pledged support for China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) over which India has expressed concerns, especially its implications in the Indian Ocean.

Asked about the criticism of the Maldivian Opposition parties of the government’s signing of Free Trade Agreement (FTA), Geng said “the negotiations on FTA is important consensus between the leaders of two countries and correspond with the trend of the times”.

He said for a long time the two sides followed the principle of equality and mutual benefit to conduct many rounds of negotiations and at last “we have reached the FTA”. “It not only serves the interest of the two countries but also facilitate the trade in the region,” he said.

Former President of Maldives Mohammad Nasheed, head of the Maldives Opposition party criticised the China-Maldives FTA, saying that it undermined Maldives’ sovereignty and is bad for the region and leaves the country in debt for China.

Nasheed, who is in London on exile, termed the agreement as “disgraceful” and accused the government of rushing through parliament in under an hour, while the Opposition MPs were summoned to appear in Court.

“This is not in the Maldivian national interest,” he told media in London.

“It will deepen the debt trap to China. Already more than 70 per cent of our foreign debt is owed to Beijing, which gives it huge leverage over us, undermining Maldivian sovereignty and independence,” he said.

The FTA for the Maldives, under which China will exempt its Maldivian imports, mostly fisheries products, from tax. In turn, the Maldives would waive tariffs on its Chinese imports, the Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post reported.