PTI | Updated: Dec 08, 2017, 19:24 PM IST
The China-backed multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - of which the MSR is a part - is similar to Maldives' strategy of achieving economic progress.
Beijing: The Maldives on Friday moved closer to China as the strategically-located island nation signed a crucial free trade deal with Beijing, while endorsing its Maritime Silk Road project shunned by India for its strategic implications in the Indian Ocean.
"China deems the Maldives as an important partner to building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR)," President Xi Jinping told his visiting Maldivian counterpart Abdulla Yameen as they witnessed signing of 12 agreements, including the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) - much-criticised by Maldivian opposition parties.
The China-backed multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - of which the MSR is a part - is similar to Maldives' strategy of achieving economic progress by making use of its geographic advantages, Xi told Yameen while expressing appreciation for the Maldives' proactive participation in the BRI, official media here reported today.
Yameen said the Maldives viewed China as "amongst our closest friends, most trusted and most dependable partners."
"The Belt and Road Initiative has greatly helped the development of many small and medium countries," state-run Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.
After acquiring Sri Lanka's Hambantota port on a 99-year lease in a USD 1.1 billion debt swap deal, China has now roped in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation, located strategically in India's backyard, to implement the MSR.
China has also set up a 'logistics base' for its navy in Djibouti, also located in the Indian Ocean region in the Horn of Africa.
India has strong reservations over the MSR and did not endorse it over apprehensions of increasing Chinese clout in the Indian Ocean.
Besides the FTA, the agreements signed yesterday after China-Maldives talks, were on economy, human resources, oceans, environment, health care, and finance, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Former Maldivian president Mohammad Nasheed, head of the country's main opposition party, criticised the FTA saying it undermined the Maldives' sovereignty, was bad for the region, and leaves the country in debt to China.
Nasheed who lives in exile in London termed the agreement as "disgraceful" and accused the government of rushing through the FTA deal in parliament in under an hour, while opposition MPs were summoned to appear in court.
"This is not in the Maldivian national interest," he told media in London.
"It will deepen the debt trap to China - already more than 70 per cent of our foreign debt is owed to Beijing, which gives it huge leverage over us, undermining Maldivian sovereignty and independence," he said.
According to a report by Maldivian daily 'Haveeru', the Maldives' parliament approved the FTA on November 30 in the absence of the opposition.
The national security committee, which reviewed the proposal behind closed doors, approved it in just 30 minutes without much evaluation, the daily reported.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang defended the FTA saying that "it not only serves the interest of the two countries but also facilitates the trade in the region," he said.
"The negotiations on FTA is important consensus between the leaders of the two countries and correspond with the trend of the times," he said.
He said for a long time the two sides followed the principle of equality and mutual benefit to conduct many rounds of negotiations and at last they have agreed on the FTA