New Delhi: Former Maldives president and Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament Mohamed Nasheed has said that his country will always follow the ‘India First’ policy, and will not allow China to continue with its plan of “land grab and debt trap”, which has led to huge debt for the island nation.
“Maldives wants a closer relationship with India. I am very certain of that. I wouldn’t say this because I am a politician, I wouldn’t say anything that would not give me more votes. I am so convinced that we can find an ever closer relationship that is beneficial for both countries,” he said at a lecture moderated by former foreign secretary Shyam Saran here Tuesday evening.
Nasheed claimed that the previous Maldivian government, led by former president Abdulla Yameen, put unprecedented powers in the hands of Chinese government-owned enterprises by way of infrastructure projects that had put the island country under a massive debt burden.
“China wanted to create autocracy and remove democracy from Maldives, set up a dictatorship and then do whatever they wanted to…More than 70 per cent of the Maldives’ current debt is owned by China…This will give China unprecedented economic and political power over the Maldives,” he said.
Nasheed’s remarks come at a time when Yameen, who is now in the Opposition, has been running his ‘India Out’ or ‘India Military Out’ campaign since 2021, when the Supreme Court of that country overturned his conviction in a corruption case.
Yameen, who was seen as a China-backed president of the Maldives, was ousted from power in 2018 and succeeded by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). However, Yameen has now made a comeback, and is running a vehement anti-India campaign which the ruling MDP has banned.
According to Nasheed, the Maldivian government under President Solih has issued a decree under which such a campaign will not be allowed and the MDP plans to issue a strong legislation against it.
“We had been wanting to come up with a legislation that would allow authorities to define what is free speech,” he said, adding that this will be aimed at having an amicable relationship with neighbouring countries.
‘Debt traps and land grabs’
According to Nasheed, although the MDP government has repealed all the acts and laws passed by the Yameen regime that gave China power to call the shots there, Beijing will continue to have considerable sway in Maldives as the country is under massive Chinese debt.
“China’s interest in the Maldives grew in the context of its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative. The Maldives is not a small island state. It’s a big ocean state. The Maldives became a target because of its big ocean space,” he said.
“We repealed all legislation that facilitated land grab. But none of the actual realities have changed. Huge amounts of infrastructure projects have been given to Chinese government-owned enterprises. They are hugely expensive. China has, I believe, intentionally inflated prices of projects so that the business plan will fail and we will be trapped in that debt,” Nasheed further said, adding that his country has also cancelled the free trade agreement signed with China under Yameen’s regime.
He referred to the present economic crisis in neighbouring Sri Lanka as a “classic case of debt trap”.
“Between 2013 and 2018, the government of Maldives gave over a dozen islands to Chinese government-owned companies to build tourist resorts, but nothing has been built yet,” Nasheed said.
“Debt traps and land grabs should not be the world order of this century,” he added.
The presidential election in Maldives is slated to be held in 2023. It is going to be a decisive one as Yameen is expected to contest again.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)