BEIJING • China believes the Maldives will make the "correct choice" to continue with a bilateral free trade deal, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday, after a Maldives politician said the tiny nation would pull out of the pact.
Mr Mohamed Nasheed, the chief of the Maldivian Democratic Party, which leads the ruling federal alliance, said this week it was a mistake to strike such a deal with the world's second-biggest economy.
The Maldives Parliament would not pass the law changes required for the zero tariffs agreement to come into force, he said.
His comments followed a warning from President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who took office last Saturday, that the Maldives was in financial difficulty after racking up debt with Chinese lenders.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing that the trade deal had undergone friendly and equal consultations, and that it is "mutually beneficial".
"Its early implementation will lead to early benefits for both sides. We believe the Maldives government will make the correct choice," he said, without elaborating.
Best known for its luxury resorts on palm-fringed coral islands, the Maldives is among a number of small countries where China has invested billions of dollars building highways and housing as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
The initiative aims to boost China's trade and investment flows with much of Asia and parts of the rest of the world. But projects are facing opposition in some countries amid concerns about a debt trap.
Former Maldives president Abdullah Yameen, who lost the election in September, signed the trade deal during a December visit to Beijing.
The Maldives Parliament ratified the treaty despite opposition protests that he had rushed through the 1,000-page document in less than an hour without any debate.
Mr Nasheed, a former president and now an adviser to Mr Solih, has called the agreement a "one-way treaty" that favours China.
Critics in the Maldives say a China-led infrastructure boom has left the country of a little more than 400,000 people debt-ridden, and a free trade pact would only make the situation worse.
Between January and August, the Maldives' imports from China came to US$342 million (S$470 million), while its exports to China were just US$265,270, according to Maldives Customs data.