Fayyaz Ismail, Chairperson of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has expressed apprehension over China’s investment in the agricultural economic zone project on Uthuru Thila Falhu, suggesting it may be a smokescreen for China’s military ambitions. The agreement between the Maldives Industrial Development Free Zone (MIDFZ) and China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) to develop the agricultural economic zone may harbour undisclosed military objectives, he said.

Since assuming office in November last year, President Mohamed Muizzu has spearheaded a significant foreign policy shift for the Maldives, aligning the nation more closely with Beijing while potentially recalibrating its traditionally close ties with India, its long-standing ally and neighbour. He recently announced the reclamation of 200 hectares of land on Uthuru Thila Falhu for the agricultural project. The initiative aims to decrease the Maldives’ reliance on imported goods, thereby bolstering the economy, he said.

Addressing a campaign rally in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Ismail questioned the administration’s decision to dedicate the reclaimed land to agriculture. He proposed that the land could be more effectively used to tackle pressing issues such as the housing crisis or for industrial purposes. “There exists larger and more suitable land in Laamu Atoll for the execution of agricultural initiatives,” Ismail reasoned.

The former economic minister further alleged that the project has geopolitical implications. “Their [China’s] intentions are not rooted in agriculture. Near the designated area lies the MNDF [Maldives National Defence Force] harbour. They are positioning themselves strategically in front of the [MNDF harbour], originating from a distant and powerful nation, to undertake military operations,” Ismail asserted.

Ismail also raised concerns about a military research vessel mapping Maldivian waters inside the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), approved by the Muizzu administration.

“Our administration [the previous government led by MDP] conducted a hydrographic survey under a highly transparent agreement [with India]. The existence now of such an agreement is uncertain, yet the [mapping] work continues,” Ismail stated, warning that the current geopolitical situation in the region points towards an imminent state of war.

In an interview with local media Adhadhu, Ismail stated that the MDP will inform CHEC of its intention to annul the Uthuru Thila Falhu agriculture agreement if the MDP comes to power. The aim is to utilise Uthuru Thila Falhu to provide housing for the people and address the housing crisis in Malé, he said.

“When MDP secures the presidency in 2028, we will repurpose Uthuru Thila Falhu to accommodate housing for Malé residents. Consequently, we will rescind the existing agreement [with CHEC],” Ismail proclaimed. He clarified that the MDP will proceed with this course of action only after a comprehensive effort to gather all pertinent facts and information related to the agreement and project.

MIDFZ, a consortium comprising five state-owned enterprises—the State Trading Organization (STO), Housing Development Corporation (HDC), Maldives Ports Ltd. (MPL), Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC), and Maldives Airports Company Ltd. (MACL)—is at the forefront of this initiative.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with CHEC establishes a framework for developing essential infrastructure and resources, said STO, which spearheads MIDFZ, and is designed to enhance agricultural output and stimulate further growth in the agricultural sector.