The Maldives government on Monday defended its free trade agreement (FTA) with China against criticism from the opposition that it was signed in haste and with insufficient parliamentary scrutiny.
Under the deal signed last week, China will exempt Maldives exports from tax while the archipelago nation will waive tariffs on Chinese imports. Fish is the main export from the Maldives, an Indian Ocean country of 400,000 that relies on tourism.
The government said the deal would help diversify the $3.6 billion economy and boost fish exports, crucial since the European Union declined in 2014 to renew a tax concession. Fish account for 5 percent of GDP and last year earned $140 million.
President Abdulla Yameen's government has had good relations with China since it came to power in 2013. Talks on the deal started in 2014, said Mohamed Hussain Shareef, the Maldives ambassador to Sri Lanka.
China has struck deals with countries in Asia and Africa to ease its import of key commodities and boost its diplomatic clout.
"The issue to some people is not the fact that there is a free trade arrangement but because it is China," Hussain told reporters in Colombo.
The EU declined to extend tax exemptions for Maldives fish because the country failed to comply with international conventions on freedom of religion, European diplomats in Colombo have told Reuters. That decision raised the cost of fish exports to the European Union by 25 percent.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party said in a statement on Sunday it was deeply concerned over what it said was a rushed deal. It said lawmakers had requested access to FTA paperwork but the government gave parliament less than one hour to approve a document of more than 1,000 pages.
"The MDP is deeply alarmed that the Yameen government is entering a trade deal that will have immense economic repercussions on the Maldivian economy," it said, adding that key details were shrouded in secrecy.
Authorities have disqualified key opposition candidates from contesting next year's election citing prior convictions. The country has seen unrest since its first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted in 2012.
He was sentenced to 13 years on terrorism charges after a trial criticized as unfair. He was later allowed to seek medical treatment in Britain. The country is largely Muslim, and some youths have fought for Islamic State in the Middle East.