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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang welcomes Maldives President Abdulla Yameen at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool(reuters_tickers)
MALE (Reuters) - The Maldives government signed a free trade agreement with China during a visit to Beijing by its leader, Abdulla Yameen, it said on Friday, despite criticism from the opposition over the speed at which the deal was concluded.
Under the deal - a document of more than 1,000 pages that the Maldives parliament signed off on last week after less than an hour of discussion - China and the archipelago nation will impose no tariffs on imports from each other.
Fisheries are the main export from the Maldives, an Indian Ocean country of 400,000 that also relies heavily on tourism.
"The free trade agreement between China and Maldives signed during the visit was a milestone in the development of China-Maldives economic and trade relations," Yameen's official website said in a joint communique.
The Maldives government also endorsed China's proposed Maritime Silk Road business development project, part of its vast Belt and Road infrastructure project.
China's state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping as telling Yameen that the Belt and Road programme matched up with the Maldives' development strategies.
President Yameen's government has had good relations with China since taking power in 2013. China has been striking deals with countries in Asia and Africa to improve its imports of key commodities and boost its diplomatic clout.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said in a statement that the FTA contained technical details that should have been thoroughly reviewed and called for its implementation to be suspended until an independent feasibility study is conducted.
The government says the FTA will help diversify the $3.6 billion (£2.7 billion) economy and boost fisheries exports, crucial since the European Union declined in 2014 to renew a tax concession on them. Fisheries account for 5 percent of Maldives' economic output and earned the country $140 million in 2016.
The EU declined to extend the tax exemptions because the country has failed to comply with international conventions on freedom of religion, European diplomats in Colombo say.
Maldives law prohibits the practice by citizens of any religion other than Islam, while non-Muslims are barred from voting, gaining citizenship or holding public office.
(Reporting by Mohamed Junayd in Male and Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Hugh Lawson)