President Abdulla Yameen, in a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has assured India that Maldives will keep the Indian Ocean demilitarized and will not allow foreign military bases in the Maldives, report Indian media.
The Maldivian government has declined to comment on the content of the letter, but the foreign ministry confirmed that the Maldivian foreign secretary Dr. Ali Naseer Mohamed handed Yameen’s letter to Modi to the Minister of External Affairs of India Smt. Sushma Swaraj on Saturday.
The letter follows an unprecedented constitutional amendment that allows foreigners to own land in the Maldives for the first time. The opposition had raised fears of Chinese military expansion in the Maldives with the amendment, but both the government and China have dismissed the claims.
Since the passing of the amendment, Indian Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar visited the Maldives on August 4 and met with the Vice President Ahmed Adeeb and discussed the strengthening of bilateral ties.
The Maldives’ relations with India and the West have come under strain with the imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed on terrorism charges. Modi dropped the Maldives from an Indian Ocean tour in March.
Yameen has meanwhile repeatedly slammed alleged foreign interference, most recently in a speech to mark the Golden Jubilee of Independence on July 26.
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has suggested the government failed to honour a commitment to pardon Nasheed on July 23, as agreed on in talks in July. The MDP issued a free whip in the vote on foreign freeholds in hope of freedom for Nasheed.
The amendments will allow foreigners who invest more than US$1 billion to own plots of land within the project site. At least 70 percent of the project site must also be reclaimed land.
The constitution previously only allowed long-term leasing of land up to 99 years.
President Yameen has said that authorising foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives will not threat Indian Ocean security or lead to “enslavement” and shortage of land.
Following the passage of the constitutional amendments on foreign freeholds in late July, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had expressed concern with the unprecedented changes facilitating “foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.”
However, 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.
Yameen had also insisted that foreign freeholds will not adversely affect friendly relations with South Asian neighbors. “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.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with The Hindu newspaper in July, Vice President 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.