A controversial Sino-Maldives free trade deal was among 12 bilateral agreements penned during President Abdulla Yameen’s three-day state visit to China.
The FTA was signed by the Maldivian economic development minister and the Chinese minister of commerce at a ceremony held Thursday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing as President Xi Jinping looked on with President Yameen.
The opposition cried foul after the country’s first FTA was rushed through parliament last month but the government says it will open up the world’s largest consumer market for tariff-free fish exports. The Maldives also committed to waive import duties for Chinese goods.
Former president Mohamed Nasheed called the deal “disgraceful” and warned that it could destabilise the Indian Ocean region.
“This is not in the Maldivian national interest,” the exiled opposition leader told the foreign press.
“It will deepen the debt trap to China. Already more than 70 percent of our foreign debt is owed to Beijing, which gives it huge leverage over us, undermining Maldivian sovereignty and independence.”
Asked about the opposition criticism, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told reporters Friday that the FTA was a “fairly high-standard, mutually beneficial and win-win free trade agreement.”
He added: “This is not only conducive to the sustainable development of China-Maldives economic and trade relations, but also to the improvement of the trade and investment liberalization and facilitation of this region.”
The Maldives also agreed to cooperate with China’s maritime silk route initiative, an ambitious project to finance infrastructure projects to connect China with countries in Asia and Africa.
The other agreements signed during the president’s visit involved mutual cooperation in developing the health sector, human resources, and technology.
Exchange letters were signed to carry out a micro-grid seawater desalination project with Chinese aid and to conduct a feasibility study for a municipal solid waste treatment and recycling project whilst a protocol on the establishment of a ‘Joint Ocean Observation Station’ was signed between the Maldives environment ministry and China’s State Oceanic Administration.
The state-owned Housing Development Corporation signed a framework agreement with the Beijing Urban Construction Group for the joint development of an ‘Airport Economic Zone’ on the reclaimed artificial island near the capital.
The HDC also signed a facility agreement with the Industrial and Commercial Bank for the ‘Design and Construction of Link Road Connecting Hulhulé and Hulhumalé Project.’
The first couple departed Beijing on Friday night after concluding the visit, which was undertaken at the invitation of President Xi Jinping. During the trip, the president met with top Chinese leaders and attended an official reception to mark the 45th anniversary of Sino-Maldives diplomatic ties.