The Maldives has approved a law allowing foreign ownership of land for the first time, drawing cheers from international investors but also sparking concerns over a possible land-grab by China in the strategic Indian Ocean region.
Dozens of foreign companies already run luxury resorts on islands that they lease from the government of the honeymoon islands for a maximum of 99 years.
The new law would allow foreigners who invest more than $1 billion to own land in perpetuity, provided 70 percent of it is reclaimed from the Indian Ocean.
“President Abdulla Yameen on Thursday ratified the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives,” his office said in a brief statement, referring to the law.
The privately run Minivan News said Yameen defended the move in an address to the nation later in the day and dismissed fears that it could undermine security in the Indian Ocean region.
“The Maldivian government has given assurances to the Indian government and our neighbouring countries as well to keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarised zone,” Yameen was quoted as saying.
He said the Maldives’ foreign policy would not change and the new move would not pose “any danger to either the Maldivian people or our neighbouring countries.”
Lawmakers voted on Wednesday for the bill which easily passed after a brief debate, with 70 members in favour and 14 against, the assembly said in a statement.
But opposition MPs expressed fears that the move could clear the way for the Chinese to set up bases in the Maldives, which straddle vital international east-west shipping routes.
Regional superpower India is already wary of increased Chinese involvement in the area, which it considers to be within its sphere of influence.
Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party MP Eva Abdulla said she feared the nation could become a frontline for a potential power struggle between India and China.
“We can’t ignore the fact there is a cold war brewing between India and China,” Abdulla told AFP by telephone from the capital island Male.
“What is in our interest is peace and stability in the Indian Ocean. India is our neighbour and we are not a country in the South China Sea,” she said, referring to China’s dispute with several countries over claims to the area.
The newly-appointed vice-president Ahmed Adeeb had also rejected the concerns, saying the move was aimed at attracting foreign investment.
“We are not going to sell land to other countries, whether its China or Saudi Arabia,” he was quoted as saying by Minivan News on Thursday.
“We want to mobilise investments worth at least one billion dollars.”
The Maldives, a nation of 330,000 Sunni Muslims, is seeking aid and investment from Beijing to build a 1.4 kilometre (0.87 mile) bridge linking Male with the nearby airport island.
Ahead of the vote, Yameen’s half brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — the country’s former strongman leader — had urged further public debate on the controversial move.
“I have appealed to (the) president to seek public opinion on proposed constitutional amendment re land ownership before ratification,” he tweeted.
The Maldives, made up of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered across the equator, has been plagued by political unrest since the toppling of the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed in February 2012.
Since his conviction earlier this year on terrorism charges there have been regular protests on Male’s streets.