November 20, 2018 / 10:31 AM / a month ago

China believes Maldives will make 'correct choice' on trade deal

BEIJING (Reuters) - China believes the Maldives will make the “correct choice” to continue with a bilateral free trade deal, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday, after a Maldives politician said the tiny nation would pull out of the pact.

File photo: Maldives former President Mohamed Nasheed waves at his supporters next to President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as he returns to Maldives after living in exile, in London and Colombo, for over two and a half years, in Male, Maldives November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Ashwa Faheem/Files

Mohamed Nasheed, the chief of the Maldivian Democratic Party, which leads the ruling federal alliance, told Reuters this week that it was a mistake to strike such a deal with the world’s second biggest economy.

The Maldives parliament would not pass the law changes required for the zero tariffs agreement to come into force, he said.

His comments followed a warning from the new President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who took office on Saturday, that the Maldives was in financial difficulty after racking up debt with Chinese lenders.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing that the trade deal had undergone friendly and equal consultations, and that it is “mutually beneficial”.

“Its early implementation will lead to early benefits for both sides. We believe the Maldives government will make the correct choice,” Geng said, without elaborating.

Best-known for its luxury resorts on palm-fringed coral islands, the Maldives is among a number of small countries where China has invested billions of dollars building highways and housing as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

The initiative aims to boost China’s trade and investment flows with much of Asia and parts of the rest of the world. However, projects are facing opposition in some countries amid concerns about a debt trap that China has rejected.

Former Maldives President Abdullah Yameen, who lost the election in September, signed the trade deal during a December visit to Beijing. The Maldives parliament ratified the treaty despite opposition protests that he had rushed through the 1,000-page document in less than an hour without any debate.

Nasheed, a former president and now an adviser to Solih, has called the agreement a “one-way treaty” that favours China.

Critics in the Maldives say a China-led infrastructure boom has left the country of a little more than 400,000 people debt-ridden, and a free trade pact would only make the situation worse given the lopsided nature of the relationship.

Between January to August this year, the Maldives’ imports from China were $342 million, while its exports to China were just $265,270, according to Maldives customs data.

Reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Darren Schuettler

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