Maldives Archipelago is of much strategic importance to India
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 10 Mar , 2024

Muizzu’s antics

Traditionally, India-Maldives relations have been cordial. A day after being sworn in as the President of Maldives, Muizzu formally requested India to withdraw her troops stationed in the Maldives. These troops operate two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft for humanitarian purposes.

India’s perception

Muizzu’s volte-face is not to be taken as a failure of Indian diplomacy. Maldives is sailing through many troubled waters of her domestic politics. There has been severe criticism at home about this unfriendly stance towards India. His critics have accused him of proving thankless to India for so many helpful gestures India has done in support of Maldives.

Anti-India actors

Not only China, but other international actors have contributed to creating a wedge between India and Maldives. For example, the new President Muhammad Muizzu was scheduled to visit India first as the new President before visiting any other country. But he broke the tradition and paid a visit to Turkey. The Turkish President, who does not enjoy good relations with India and speaks against her at the UN and other fora, particularly concerning the Kashmir issue ,indicated Muizzu’s shift of foreign policy. From Turkey, Muizzu flew to UAE to have a consultation with the UAE government. Muizzu is also said to have met with the US senior officials and expressed thanks and the hope for strategic cooperation between the US and Maldives

It also appears that China has been playing her role quite silently in Maldives. China generally creates pro-China cadres in a country where it wants to have its footprints and more particularly when her move would prove a disadvantage to India.

In a newscast, the BBC said that the expected arrival of a Chinese research ship in the Maldives this week has escalated tensions between Beijing, Delhi and Male.

Officially, the vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 is there to “make a port call, for rotation of personnel and replenishment”, in short, an entirely innocuous stop.

But that is not how it is being seen in Delhi. Instead, the ship’s presence is at the very least a diplomatic snub. At worst, some fear, it could be a mission to collect data which could – at a later date – be used by the Chinese military in submarine operations.

China experts, however, have shrugged off their concerns. “The Chinese ships carry out scientific research work in the Indian Ocean. Its activities on the high sea are entirely legitimate,” Zhou Bo, a former People’s Liberation Army Senior Colonel, told the BBC. “Sometimes the ships need replenishment – like fuel, food and water. So, they berth in a third country port, which is normal. So, the Indian government shouldn’t make any fuss about it. Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean,” asserted Mr Zhou, who is now with the Tsinghua University in Beijing

The President reiterated that Indian troops will not be allowed to  stay even in civilian attire. However, he said that Maldives will get free “non-lethal” military equipment and training from China’s military under a newly inked agreement with Beijing, President Mohamed Muizzu has said, underlining that it would further strengthen the Indian Ocean island nation’s independence and autonomy. Muizzu also met Major General Zhang Baoqun, Deputy Director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China, and President of the Export-Import Bank of China, Ren Shengjun separately.

Earlier on Monday, the Maldives Ministry of Defence announced that a military assistance agreement has been signed by Defence Minister Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon and Major General Zhang. However, it did not reveal any additional details.

This is the first time Maldives has signed a deal with China for military cooperation of this level. Previously, China had been exclusively known for its assistance towards urban and economic development of the Maldives, news portal Sun. mv said.

Chinese research ship Xiang Yang Hong 03 has visited the Indian Ocean multiple times. Photo: Weibo

Final Analysis

Mr Zhou says Chinese aircraft carriers and their support vessels will eventually reach the Indian Ocean. If India disrupts restocking supplies for these ships in a third country – like Sri Lanka – then Beijing will be “furious”, he says

Maldivian President has made not only surprising but also ill considered moves of terminating relations with India and agreeing to fall in the “trap of China. During his five-day visit to China, he was given a red carpet reception obviously because Muizzu has shown extraordinary favour to China.

Chinese presence in the Maldivian Archipelago is an indirect threat to Indian security. But more than that it puts the Quad 4 mission into jeopardy. In a sense, China’s free access to the Maldives is a direct challenge to the Indo-Pacific strategy of Quad–4. Chinese presence in the Maldives is a permanent challenge to the security and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps it becomes unavoidable for the Indo-Pcific security arrangement to call a summit of the Quad-4 and discuss the implications of China’s attempt to create a naval base in the Maldives.

China has greater strategic ambitions and it’s likely to send more ships to the Indian Ocean region for oceanographic research or to protect its commercial interests, experts say. For India, the challenge will be how to counter Beijing’s growing assertive influence in an area that Delhi perceives as its backyard.

Indeed, India has considerably upgraded its naval capability to defend its important water channels through which it conducts trade with foreign countries. But nothing can be taken for granted. India has announced it setting up a new base, INS Jatayu, in Minicoy in the Lakshadeep Islands which will overlook the strategic Sea Lanes of Communication. In this context, the Quad -4 has to reassess its mandate and incorporate new clauses that would ensure the security of the entire Archipelago.  

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

KN Pandita

Former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

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