In a move that could help China establish a foothold in the Indian Ocean region, the Maldives has passed a law allowing foreigners to own land.
The constitutional amendment bill passed by the Maldivian parliament Wednesday will allow foreign parties who invest at least $1 billion to lease land on the project site on a freehold basis. At least 70 percent of the land must be reclaimed. Maldives is a cluster of nearly 1,200 tiny islands.
Seventy of the 84 lawmakers voted in favor of the bill, and 14 voted against it.
The Maldives government said the new law would attract megadevelopment projects and generate jobs. Parliament must approve the projects.
But a key member of the main opposition Maldives Democratic Party, who did not want to be named, told VOA the move was targeted at facilitating Chinese investment. The MDP said the law would pave the way for Chinese military facilities in the country.
China has expertise in reclamation technology and can easily make investments of that size.
Strategic affairs analyst Anand Kumar, at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said the law could help China gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean.
“They have been creating islands in South China Sea, and they will try to replicate the same exercise in Indian Ocean," Kumar said. "They tried to do the same thing with Sri Lanka. It appears that since they have lost political influence in Sri Lanka, they are trying to regain the same ground in Maldives.”
The opposition leader who spoke to VOA said that while the party did not oppose foreign ownership of land in principle, it was worried that the bill did not have provisions for oversight or governance mechanisms.
Beijing has made large investments in infrastructure projects in the Maldives since the present government led by President Abdulla Yameen came to power following the ouster of pro-India former President Mohamed Nasheed.
New Delhi has long worried about China expanding its influence in countries in the Indian Ocean region, which it considers its strategic backyard.
Analyst Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi said it was against India’s interest to see a foreign country establish a significant presence in the Maldives.
“Any enhancement of Chinese presence and influence in the Maldives has consequences for us," Joshi said. "Definitely, alarm bells would go off in India.”
Analyst Kumar said China’s bid to extend its influence in the Maldives was aimed at the United States, which has a naval base in the Indian Ocean at Diego Garcia.
“Basically, they are trying to emerge as rival to U.S," Kumar said. "With that objective, they are coming in a big way in the Indian Ocean. They are not so much concerned about India. Their larger objective is to meet the American military and naval challenge at a global level.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Maldives last year, the first visit by a Chinese leader.