NEW DELHI: In a sudden move that has alarmed India, Maldives government tabled a bill today that will allow foreign ownership of land, that will allow unprecedented access to foreign parties, like China, to operate and have a toehold in the strategic Indian ocean region.
There had been buzz about the government of President Abdulla Yameen bringing the constitutional amendment for the last one week – but observers were taken by surprise when the parliament speaker scheduled an extraordinary sitting for Tuesday night.
The debate, which began at 9.30 p.m. in Maldives, was scheduled after parliament today modified the lawmaking process, therefore fast-tracking the amendment to the constitution.
During the debate, ruling party MPs explicitly mentioned that the amendment to allow foreign ownership of land will help to bring in China and Chinese firms.
This morning, parliament impeached the vice president M Jameel Ahmed with support from the opposition – as part of a deal which paved the way for temporary release from jail for leaders like MDP president Mohamed Nasheed. The “understanding” between the government and opposition had led to the passage of Maldives first constitutional amendment which lowered age for presidential candidates – and has paved the way for talks.
There had been indication that the government would like the opposition to also support the land amendment, but the introduction of the bill and the move to schedule a debate in the night was completely unexpected.
“Everything had been kept very hush-hush. Today’s move has come as a complete shock,” said a MDP party member.
There is great concern that the move to allow ownership of land by foreigners – so far forbidden in the Maldivian constitution – is only being done to facilitate one country, China.
In recent months, China has been making inroads into Indian Ocean through submarine visits to ports in the neighbourhood, as well as, strategic investments under the maritime silk road project. Maldives had signed onto China’s maritime Silk Road project last December.
Any Chinese presence that will allow for logistical, and even military facilities in Maldives, will be viewed as a serious security concern by the Indian establishment.
As per the bill, ownership of land by foreign parties will be allowed if the investment is more than $1 billion and that 70 percent of the plot must have been “reclaimed”. So far, foreigners could only lease land for up to 99 years.
Sources pointed out that currently there is only one country, China which is interested in investments of this size in Maldives.
China also has been one of the leaders in land reclamation technology, as witnessed by its fast and aggressive island-making in South China Sea. It has built the largest dredger in Asia, which has as per Chinese estimates blasted 10 million cubic metre of sand and seawater onto reefs in the disputed region, which is equivalent to three times the volume of concrete used to build Hoover dam.
To pass the amendment, the ruling party needs two thirds majority in the 85-member parliament.
While MDP sources told Express that they are opposed to the bill due to its foreign policy implication and concerns over sovereignty, there was ambiguity on whether all opposition MPs will remain in line, even if a whip was issued to vote against the bill.
MDP has only 20 seats, which is two less than the number required to block the amendment. In fact, MDP sources admitted that it would be almost impossible to stop the passage of the bill which will be put to vote on Wednesday.
Opposition party members said that they had been given warning to foreign countries that Maldives government was aligning too strongly with China, which would impact stability in Indian ocean.