COLOMBO (AFP) - Exiled Maldives opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed on Monday (Jan 22) accused China of seizing land in the politically-troubled Indian Ocean archipelago and undermining its sovereignty.
Nasheed said Chinese interests had leased at least 16 islets among the 1,192 scattered coral islands and were building ports and other infrastructure there.
The 50-year-old former president said the increased Chinese presence could threaten the Muslim-majority nation of 340,000 and the wider Indian Ocean region.
During a visit to Colombo, where his Maldivian Democratic Party activists are based, Nasheed called the Chinese action a "land grab."
"This is colonialism and we must not allow it. We want other countries (in the region) to join us and speak the same language (against Chinese expansion). We are not against any country, not against direct foreign investment, but we are against relinquishing our sovereignty."
Nasheed said 80 per cent of the Maldives' foreign debt was owed to China and the nation could end up handing over more land and infrastructure as it may not be able to repay the loans.
He was referring to Sri Lanka's experience under former president Mahinda Rajapakse who borrowed heavily from China. The new government had to sell projects to repay debts.
Nasheed, who wants to contest this year's presidential election, said he would renegotiate contracts with China if successful. He said the current administration had entered agreements with China without making them public.
He was the Maldives' first democratically elected president in 2008, but was narrowly defeated in 2013 by President Abdullah Yameen.
Nasheed was later jailed on terrorism charges he says were politically motivated. He has lived in exile for two years after Maldives authorities let him travel to London for medical treatment.
He is almost certain to be arrested on return to the Maldives, whose reputation as an upmarket honeymoon destination has been battered by years of political unrest.
The Maldives constitution bars Nasheed from being a candidate because of a 2015 criminal conviction. But he hopes the restriction will be lifted in response to international pressure.
A UN panel has ruled that Nasheed's imprisonment was illegal and ordered authorities to pay compensation. The government has refused.