The Pearl Story
India is apprehensive about Chinese presence in the Maldives. This became more evident when the Maldives sold its Feydhoo Finolhu island to a Chinese company and India showed its concerns.
In July 2016, the People’s Majlis of the Maldives, the Maldivian parliament, made a significant amendment to the Tourism Act, allowing foreigners to own land in the country on a lease or freehold basis. Within six months of the amendment’s passage, the government of the Maldives signed a historic deal with a Chinese firm in December 2016, to lease the country’s most beautiful inhabited Feydhoo Finolhu Island, also known as Feydhoo Caves or Feydhoo Wall, for USD 4 million for a period of 50 years.
The news hit the nation hard since the island is located in the Kaafu Atoll, which is the nearest uninhabited island to Malé, the Maldives’ capital, and is a half-hour drive away from the Male International Airport. Along with the island’s prime location, what makes Feydhoo Finolhu the most treasured piece of the Maldivian land is its wellprotected wall of coral reefs, offering loads of naturally paved swim-throughs, clefts, small and prolonged overhangs, as well as holes for scuba diving.
Despite being one of the top tourist attractions in the Maldives, the government’s decision to get rid of its treasure island seemed to be the most controversial step taken since President Abdullah Yameen took the reins of the country. What made the move more dubious was the way it took place in closed-door meetings without fulfilling the basic criteria set by the Maldives Tourism Act that requires all bidding proceedings to be held and finalised in public.
Says Moosa Zameer, Minister of Tourism of the Maldives, Feydhoo Finolhu appeared to be the only island which was sold off to a Chinese firm at a reduced price without a bid process from the list of islands and lagoons near Huvafen Fushi resort put up for sale by the government, admits.
The minister further revealed that the acquisition cost of USD 4 million had already been paid and the agreement signed, while the name of the Chinese acquisitor had yet to be disclosed. Appearing divisive and underhanded, the entire process was completed in camera without letting the public know about it. In addition, the Maldives’ AntiCorruption Commission (ACC) and the Auditor General’s Office (AGO) were later informed about the deal only when it was finally closed.
The leasing of Kaafu atoll Feydhoo Finolhu to China emerged as a matter of regional concern too when India, lying 350 miles northeast of the Maldives, showed its deep reservation about the development which it believes will affect its strategic interests in the archipelago.
In the opinion of SunOnline, a Maldives-based news website “Some Indian media outlets have reportedly raised concern that giving an island close to the main airport of the country was a danger to the strategic interests of India. In response, the Chinese Ambassador said that the Indian attention on a Maldivian tourism lease with a Chinese
company is very surprising.”
India says the Feydhoo Finolhu island is close to the capital city and to the main airport of the Maldives. Handing over the country’s central atoll to a Chinese firm would harm India’s long-held strategic goals in the Indian Ocean region.
“India and the Maldives are expected to discuss the selling of some islands of the Maldives during the upcoming visit of Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim this year,” wrote the Economic Times of India, a leading business daily.
However, these concerns look baseless, as Feydhoo Finolhu has been sold mainly for the development of the country’s tourism sector.
N. Sathiya Moorthy is a senior fellow and director of the Observer Research Foundation ( ORF), Chennai Chapter. Using the term ‘Chinese expansionism,’ he believes China has been silently extending its reach in the backyard of the Indian Ocean.
“Sure enough, Feydhoo Finolhu, the island that has now been leased to a Chinese firm, reportedly for developing a tourist resort, is not where the airport is located,” says Moorthy.
“But it is uninhabited and is close to Male and, by extension, the international airport. It is not rocket science to conclude that any ‘foreign power’ wanting to keep a tab on the Maldives does not require an airport of its own, or under the control of their national entity,” says Moorthy.
"I think every country has the opportunity to invest in the Maldives. The country is open to all foreign investors who are important to the Maldives’ tourism-based economy. As far as I know, there are three Chinese companies involved in resort construction in the Maldives. So I think that's how this also happened," says Wang Fukang, the Chinese Ambassador to the Maldives.
Decoding the reason behind ‘deep’ concerns raised by India, many people believe it is the ever-increasing influence of China in the Maldives that perturbs India which also happens to be a close ally of the Maldives as well as its South Asian neighbour.
However, selling off Feydhoo Finolhu Island to a Chinese company is not the first time when India has raised fingers at such developments carried out in the Maldives with Chinese assistance.
“China has been eyeing opportunities to help build infrastructure in the Maldives to expand its footprint in the Indian Ocean Region as part of its `One Belt, One Road' connectivity initiative. It is keen to opening its purse strings to build a network of ports dubbed the `String of Pearls,' says Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, a senior journalist associated with the Times of India.
As many times in the past, India has disapproved of any project carried out in the archipelago with Chinese financial assistance, but the Maldives cannot only wait for India to provide funding for its tourism infrastructure development.
Being unduly apprehensive about Chinese presence in the Maldives, India’s stance about the sale of Feydhoo Finolhu speaks volumes about India’s overall approach that it has been following to maintain its diplomatic relationships, particularly with the neighbouring countries.
This is exactly what India has been doing with Pakistan through its consistent efforts to isolate and gradually destabilise its eastern neighbour for no apparent reason other than mere wickedness and depravity. In sum, India’s baseless concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives reflect its own failure to keep neighbouring states under its thumb.
It also tends to be more than a dichotomy for Chanakya’s followers in India who believe in befriending the enemy’s enemy as an inevitable part of their political strategy. The stance goes out of the window when the enemy strengthens its diplomatic ties with those lying right in the Indian backyard.