Maldives and China signed FTA last week.
FTA was signed keeping India in dark.
India has aired its unhappiness over the pact signed in stealth.
Diplomatic script seems to have changed between India and Maldives in two years. Maldives had plunged into a severe water crisis exactly two years ago following a massive fire that burnt the generator of its largest water treatment plant in capital Male.On the wintry night of December 2015, the then Maldives foreign minister Dunya Maumoon made frantic calls to several of her counterparts including India, USA, Sri Lanka and China requesting them to rescue the country from acute water crisis.
About 1.5 lakh residents of Male had gone waterless and crowds become restive standing in queues for potable water.External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj received the distress call around 10 pm. By early morning, the Indian Air Force had landed five planeloads of drinking water in Male. A huge turmoil was averted.
CHINA’S DIPLOMATIC BURGLARY
Two winters later, Maldives approved of a Free Trade Agreement with China in total stealth. The negotiations were being held since 2014 between China and Maldives.On November 29, President Abdulla Yameen’s government brought a Bill in Maldives’ Majlis (parliament), which approved it at midnight.
The approval was given even without having requisite majority in the 85-member Majlis.Only 33 ruling coalition members were present in Majlis while the Opposition cried foul saying it got less than 10 minutes to read and debate 1000-plus pages of the draft.
A week later, on December 7 – when Indian government was focused on Nepal parliamentary elections – Maldives President Yameen signed the FTA with China on his maiden visit to Beijing. Indian establishment was so much surprised with the move that it took about a week before it could air its concerns over the matter.
India was among the first to recognise Maldives after its independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with the country. India established its mission at Male in 1972. India has quelled a few rebellions against the ruling coalitions in Male.However, Yameen administration seems to be giving preference to China over India. Recently, Maldives fisheries minister Mohamed Shainee, during his Colombo visit, expressed unhappiness over the way FTA with India has worked. Under such circumstances, China did a sort of diplomatic coup in Maldives by getting it sign FTA without India having faintest of idea.
WHY SHOULD INDIA BE CONCERNED?
Maldives is the second country in India’s neighbourhood where China has been successful in showing its economic muscle. After Pakistan, Maldives is second country to have signed FTA with China.
China has been aggressively pushing for FTA with all the neighbours of India. Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are on the Chinese list.Nepal has now elected a pro-Chinese Left bloc government. Parliamentary elections are due in Bangladesh in about a year’s time when pro-India Sheikh Hasina will be fighting to beat two-term anti-incumbency against anti-India Khalida Zia’s party.
In Sri Lanka, China has increased its strategic stake by acquiring Hambantotal port on lease for 99 years. With its Belt and Road Initiative, China is further ramping up its economic ties with South Asian countries. Its massive economy seems to be dictating the new terms of engagement.
CHINA REIGNS SUPREME IN MALDIVES
China already has elbowed India out on two major infrastructure projects. Yameen government preferred China to India in giving contracts for development of till uninhabited island Hulhule, USD 400 million international airport porject and another for building “Friendhsip Bridge” connecting it to capital Male.
China has significant presence at Gwadar port in Pakistan and opened its military base in Djibouti only recently. Though Yameen has stated that Maldives will remain a demilitarised zone, China may push for docking facilities for its naval ships on the islands to meet services requirements at Hambantota, Djibouti and Gwadar. In August, three Chinese ships docked at harbour in Male as “goodwill visit”.
Tourism and fisheries export are the two main constituents of about USD 3 billion economy of Maldives. China has emerged as the largest importer products from Maldives. Chinese imports from Maldives stood at USD 360 million in 2016.With FTA, Maldives expects to increase the volume and worth of exports to China. Further, Beijing sends the maximum number of tourists to Maldives. The Chinese travelers are encouraged by Beijing to visit Maldives giving a boost to the booming industry of the island nation.With China going aggressive in India neighbourhood flexing its military as well as economic muscle, New Delhi is bound to be concerned even if Indo-Maldives joint military exercise, Ekuverin (meaning friends) begins tomorrow at Belagavi in Karnataka.
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