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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Faizan Us­mani The writer is a mem­ber of the staff.

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.

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