The Chinese foreign ministry has dismissed the possibility of building military bases in the Maldives after the constitution was amended last week to allow foreign freeholds in the country.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had expressed concern with the unprecedented changes facilitating “foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.”
In a statement sent to Reuters, China’s foreign ministry said the parliamentary vote on authorising foreign ownership of land was an internal matter for the Maldives.
China “has always respected and supported the Maldives’ efforts to maintain its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” the ministry said.
“What the relevant people said about China building bases in the Maldives is totally baseless,” it added.
After ratifying the controversial amendments on Thursday, President Abdulla Yameen insisted that foreign freeholds will not adversely affect “friendly relations” with South Asian neighbours.
“The Maldivian government has given assurances to the Indian government and our neighbouring countries as well to keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarised zone,” he said.
Reuters noted that India has been “concerned about China’s growing involvement in the Indian Ocean as it opens its purse strings and builds a network of ports dubbed the String of Pearls.”
In an interview with The Hindu newspaper, Vice President Ahmed Adeeb dismissed fears of Chinese military expansion in the Maldives as a “political play by the opposition to try and create a problem between the Maldives and India”.
“We are open for business, but not open to give up our sovereignty to any country including China,” he said.
Adeeb said China has “never shown an interest in this kind of project,” but has offered partnership in infrastructure projects with concessional loans.
“We are seeing much more interest from the Middle East (West Asia), especially from royal families there. Maldives can be like Bahrain is for them,” he said.
Adeeb referred to President Yameen rejecting an offer from the United States to build a base in the Maldives last year. “Our sovereignty is not on offer,” he said.
“And we don’t want to give any of our neighbours, India….any cause for concern. We don’t want to be in a position when we become a threat to our neighbours,” he said.
Following the enactment of the government’s flagship special economic zones (SEZ) law last year, Adeeb said many companies made requests “to be able to own lands in perpetuity.”
“So far we have given leases for 99 years to them, for investments of around $200 million,” he explained.
“But now we want to build big projects, like IT parks, like townships, so we need to give them more. Maldives is a great place for them as we have year-round good weather, environment, so this amendment is to help them invest in the Maldives. Even in India, investments over $5 million get several concessions.”
Adeeb stressed that the constitutional amendments contained a number of safeguards, such as the US$1 billion minimum threshold for investments as well as requirements for parliament to approve projects and for developers to reclaim land up to 70 percent for the project.
“The opposition wants to say they will come and run military bases, but that is not the reality. We are looking at projects like Singapore Marina Bay Sands or Dubai’s Palm islands. We are not looking at strategic projects,” he said.
Meanwhile, in his Republic Day address last year, President Abdulla Yameen had declared a foreign policy shift to the East.
Chinese president Xi Jingping became the first Chinese president to visit the Maldives in September last year. During the visit, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s maritime silk route, a trade route from China’s Fujian province to the Mediterranean Sea via South Asia and East Africa.
China is providing grant and loan assistance to the Maldives to build a bridge between the capital and the airport. Chinese companies are involved in airport development and have now been handed islands for resort development.
In January, the MDP alleged the government was making plans to award parts of south central Laamu Atoll to China for a military base. The Chinese embassy promptly dismissed the allegations as “completely false.”
“It is a common knowledge that China pursues a national defense policy that is defensive in nature,” read the press release. “China does not maintain any military in any foreign country.”