Maldives signed off on China trade deal with just an hour’s debate over 1,000-page agreement

Government pushes through pact at lightning speed despite opposition warnings that it needs proper scrutiny

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 1:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 1:23pm

The Maldives government signed a free-trade agreement with China during a visit to Beijing by President Abdulla Yameen, it said on Friday, despite criticism from the opposition over the speed at which the deal was concluded.

According to the deal – a document of more than 1,000 pages that the Maldives parliament signed off on last week after less than an hour of discussion – China and the archipelago nation will impose no tariffs on imports from each other.

Fisheries are the main export from the Maldives, an Indian Ocean country of 400,000 that also relies heavily on tourism.

“The free trade agreement between China and Maldives signed during the visit was a milestone in the development of China-Maldives economic and trade relations,” Yameen’s official website said in a joint communique.

The Maldives government also endorsed China’s proposed Maritime Silk Road business development project, part of its vast Belt and Road Initiative.

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China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping as telling Yameen that the Belt and Road Initiative matched up with the Maldives’ development strategies.

Yameen’s government has had good relations with China since taking power in 2013. China has been striking deals with countries in Asia and Africa to improve its imports of key commodities and boost its diplomatic clout.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party said in a statement that the trade agreement contained technical details that should have been thoroughly reviewed and called for its implementation to be suspended until an independent feasibility study is conducted.

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The government says the deal will help diversify the US$3.6 billion economy and boost fisheries exports, which is crucial since the European Union declined in 2014 to renew a tax concession on them. Fisheries account for 5 per cent of Maldives’ economic output and earned the country US$140 million in 2016.

The EU declined to extend the tax exemptions because the country has failed to comply with international conventions on freedom of religion, European diplomats in Colombo say.

Maldives law prohibits the practice by citizens of any religion other than Islam, while non-Muslims are barred from voting, gaining citizenship or holding public office.