Warily watching the political transition in the Maldives following the electoral defeat of the pro-Beijing President Abdullah Yameen by a pro-India Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, China is set to redraw its strategy for the strategic archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean located in India’s backyard.
The new Maldivian government fired its first salvo on Monday when former president Mohamed Nasheed, who headed the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), said that the new Solih-led government would pull out of the “lopsided” free trade agreement (FTA) with China signed by Yameen.
Reacting to Nasheed’s remarks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday that the FTA is based on friendly and equal consultations between both countries.
“It is mutually beneficial. The early implementation of the agreement will bring benefits to the two countries at an early date. We believe the Maldivian government will make the right choice in this aspect,” Geng said.
The FTA, which Maldives opposition parties alleged was signed in a hurry by Yameen while disregarding India’s concerns, is yet to be implemented as the required legislative process has not been completed.
Nasheed, who had earlier alleged that China was “busy buying up the Maldives” during Yameen’s presidency, said the trade imbalance between China and the Maldives is so huge that “nobody would think of an FTA between such parties”.
“China is not buying anything from us. It is a one-way treaty,” he said, adding that the Maldivian Parliament would not pass the changes required.
As per trade data, China’s exports to the Maldives was stated to be USD 342 million between January and August this year, while the Maldives’ exports amounted to just over USD 265,000.
Replying to another question as to how China viewed the power transition in the Maldives and the new government’s plans to audit Chinese loans and projects, Geng played down concerns that Solih will reverse Yameen’s pro-Beijing policies.
While Geng said he was not aware of any plans by the Solih government to audit Chinese projects, he added that the new president in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping‘s special envoy Luo Shugang had said that the new government attaches importance and is committed to developing relations with China.
While it is for the Maldives government to formulate its foreign policy, “China is committed to deepen our mutually beneficial cooperation with the Maldives and our will to maintain good relations with the Maldives is firm and clear cut,” Geng said.
Chinese Tourism Minister Luo attended Solih’s inauguration on November 17 and called on him a day later.
During their meeting, Solih stated that China has offered “the most economic and development assistance to the Maldives” and various projects like the friendship bridge had brought tangible benefits to the Maldives, Geng said.
Commenting on the new government formation in the Maldives, the state-run Global Times daily said in an op-ed article on Tuesday that “Solih is viewed as pro-India by the Indian and Western media”.
“However, pro-India does not necessarily mean anti-China. Due to close geographic distance, it is normal for India to have such a large influence on small Indian Ocean countries. China’s cooperation with these countries was never meant to replace India’s influence,” it said.
“The new Maldivian government may sway its foreign policy. If small countries such as the Maldives change their foreign policy whenever a leadership transition occurs, it will be a headache for both China and India,” it said.
“The two should support these small countries in adopting a stable foreign policy and protecting foreign investment. The two nations can also carry out mutual third-party cooperation to seek a win-win scenario and stabilise the entire region,” the daily said.
“Undoubtedly, China has its own stakes in the Indian Ocean as it is an important gateway for China’s opening-up. But China’s cooperation with Indian Ocean countries is not to squeeze any other country,” it said.