The Sino-Maldivian Free Trade Agreement (FTA), announced recently, is of concern to India for several reasons. For one, China's influence in South Asia, which is growing at an alarming pace, will receive a further shot in the arm when the FTA with Maldives is implemented. Sino-Maldivian trade is already in China's favour and the FTA is expected to tilt this imbalance further to its advantage. The growing deficit is likely to draw the archipelago into a debt trap, which China could exploit to win for itself concessions that are of direct concern to India. Beijing could, for instance, demand access for its navy to Maldivian ports. Given the Maldives' proximity to the Indian coast and shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean that are of importance to India, the FTA's implications are of grave implication to India. Consider this: China's leverage in countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, for instance, has grown immensely as burgeoning trade deficits and inability to repay loans for Chinese-built infrastructure projects have left these countries vulnerable to Beijing's pressure in other dimensions, such as diplomatic and military. Maldives is likely to meet the same fate, too. Indeed, such pressure is perhaps being applied on Male already. In August, the Maldives permitted three Chinese warships to dock in the capital.
Delhi's suspicions over the intentions underlying the Sino-Maldivian FTA have been fuelled by the furtive manner in which the agreement was finalised. Beijing's bonding with Male has been on display for some time; the latter awarded several lucrative infrastructure and other deals to China. Maldives' interest in an FTA with China was also known, and negotiations began three years ago. However, the swiftness and secrecy that marked the manner in which Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen got Parliament to pass the FTA has alarmed Delhi. India can be expected to raise the matter with the Maldivian government. However, Delhi has only itself to blame, having dragged its feet in finalising its own Free Trade Agreement with the Yameen government.
The FTA was the highlight of President Yameen's visit to Beijing. Eleven other deals that were signed during the visit will energise their bilateral relations. A memorandum of understanding on implementing a maritime trade plan that is part of China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative will bring the Maldives firmly into China's sphere of influence. Meanwhile, anger is simmering in Male. Opposition parties are enraged that Yameen did not consult them on the FTA. The President is likely to use force to crush any protests. While India's concern over the situation in the archipelago is understandable, it must not be seen to be taking sides. Quiet diplomacy will be in India's interest.