India will “do nothing but upset itself” if it tries to prevent closer trade ties between China and the Maldives, Beijing state media has said, days after the tiny island nation approved a deal with the world’s second biggest economy.
The Free Trade Agreement has reportedly stunned New Delhi into silence, but the Global Times said China was the largest source of tourists for the Maldives and denied there was any “political intrigue” to the deal.
“It is understandable that the Maldivian government resorts to signing an FTA to further attract Chinese tourists by making inexpensive Chinese goods such as instant noodles available on the Maldivian market,” read the op-ed published late Sunday.
Formal negotiations for the FTA commenced in late 2015 and concluded last September. According to the Chinese ministry of commerce, the two countries would reduce tariffs of over 95 percent of goods to zero and commit “to opening the service market such as finance, healthcare and tourism and agreed to cooperate practically in key areas.”
“Political relationships are sometimes a barometer of economic ties,” purred the Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid that often reflects what party officials think but cannot say.
“It won’t be easy for India to maintain its political influence in South Asia if its own economic presence is weakening. If India thinks its position is threatened, it should consider how it can give more benefits to its neighbors through win-win economic cooperation.”
Indian media has been vocal about the FTA’s impact on regional relations.
The Maldives is the only country in the neighbourhood which has not been visited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said the Indian Express, and the two countries do not have a FTA.
“South Block sources told The Indian Express on Thursday that the Indian High Commission in Male has sent a report on the development which caught many in Delhi by surprise. This is Maldives’s first FTA with any country, and China’s second FTA with any country in South Asia — after Pakistan,” it added.
The Wire wondered what could have driven Malé into Beijing’s arms — especially since Foreign Minister Dr. Mohamed Asim reiterated the Maldives’ India-first policy in a meeting with his counterpart Sushma Swaraj last year.
“The signing of the China-Maldives FTA again raises questions about Chinese influence on the archipelago nation, which is located at a strategically important position in the Indian ocean. India had been keeping an eye out on Chinese activities in the region, especially concerned about the possibility of military activities in atolls leased for tourism purposes,” said The Wire.
The Quint published a more forthright assessment.
“India is losing the Maldives plot and China has finally demonstrated the kind of sway it holds on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nation,” wrote analyst Rajeev Sharma.
“China’s juggernaut has been making inroads into other South Asian powers like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, thus completing the dreadful Chinese string of pearls aimed at strategic encirclement of India.”