By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, March 11:

The ongoing trajectory of Sino-Maldivian relationship, with a strategic and defence dimension to it, has set off alarm bells in New Delhi. India has responded with a series of actions to beef up its defences in the Western Indian Ocean and contain any aggressive Chinese moves on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh.

India is strengthening its naval base in Minicoy named INS Jatayu which is only a few hundred kilometres from the Maldives, and as per reports, has also moved 10,000 troops from the India-Pakistan border to the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh to meet any threats there from the Chinese.

Seeds of Conflict

Indo-Maldivian relations, which were close during the Presidency of the pro-Indian Ibrahim Solih, began to deteriorate after the pro-Chinese Mohamed Muizzu became President in November 2023. The first thing that Muizzu did on coming to power was to fulfil his election promise to rid the Maldives of Indian military personnel, although these personnel were only involved in the humanitarian task of evacuation of sick persons from the islands of the archipelago to capital Male for medical treatment.  

Muizzu’s demand stemmed from the “India Out” campaign launched during the Presidency of another pro-China President Abdulla Yameen between 2013 and 2018. According to US political commentator Michael Kugelman, the “India Out” campaign tapped into the discontent of some Maldivians who resented, and sometimes exaggerated, India’s deep influence in the Maldives.

Kugelman adds that the “India Out” campaign was rooted in a growing section that rejected the influence of Hindu-majority India on a 100% Islamic country. He points out that in 2022, a mob linked to former President Yameen’s party attacked the International Yoga Day event in Male co-hosted by the then pro-India Maldivian government and India.

Muizzu asked India to take back its military personnel by March 15, 2024. He also declared that he would not renew an agreement with India to do hydrographic surveys of the seas around the Maldives. He added that he would re-examine all existing agreements with India signed by the predecessor government led by President Solih.

On assuming office, Muizzu skipped India and went on visits to Turkey and China, both at odds with India. He is said to have entered into a deal to buy drones from Turkey. More importantly, he signed a “strategic partnership” agreement with China. There was an agreement to jointly develop the Blue Economy also.

More recently, his government signed a “defence agreement” with China to secure training for the Maldivian army and police. China agreed to gift non-lethal crowd control weapons like teargas and rubber bullets to quell street protests.

At first, India did not agree to suspend its medical evacuation operations which was being done with two choppers and a Dornier aircraft it had gifted to the Maldivian National Defence Force(MNDF). Subsequently, India offered to substitute the military personnel with civilians. And Muizzu agreed. But still, the anti-India lobby kept up the chant that the “civilian” substitutes would actually be Indian military personnel in civilian clothes.

Prior to this, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to Indians to go for their holidays to Lakshadweep island off Kerala, was misinterpreted by three Maldivian junior ministers as Modi’s bid to harm Maldivian tourism. They issued statements vilifying Modi and India. Though the Muizzu government suspended the three Ministers, Indians as a whole took the remarks as a national insult and called for a tourists’ boycott of Maldives.

The call resulted in Indians’ visits to the Maldives dwindling. In 2023, the Maldives got 209,198 Indian tourists, but in 2024 till March 5, only 28,017 Indian visitors had come. Following Muizzu’s appeal to China to send tourists, China become the top source with 55,641 visitors as of March 5.

Muizzu’s consistent anti-India moves made India flex its muscles. The Maldivian media reported that on two occasions Indian Coast Guard vessels boarded two Maldivian fishing vessels and interrogated the fishermen at gun point. Maldives protested to India, but to no avail, the Maldivian media said. Muizzu then went on to declare that Maldives will defend its sovereignty by reconnoitring its Exclusive Economic Zone on its own 24/7.

When the Chinese “research” vessel “Xiang Yang Hong 03”, which India believes is a “spy” vessel, wanted to dock in the Maldives, India protested. But the Maldives’ allowed the docking on the plea that it would come only for replenishment. Muizzu then went to say that Maldives is a sovereign country which no power can “bully”.

India was cut to the quick as it had helped Maldives as a “first responder” in difficult times as when there was a drinking water famine in 2014. India rushed hundreds of tonnes of drinking water using Indian military aircraft and ships.

Given the Sino-Maldivian moves to oust India from the Maldives, and also China’s increasing its defence budget by 7.2%, India took steps to defend its interests in this part of the Indian Ocean. It beefed up a naval and air base named “INS Jatayu” in the Minicoy island in Laskshdweep, which is only a few hundred kilometres from the Maldives. The base has radars, jetties, an airfield and BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles with a range of 450 kms.

The Hindu reported that INS Jatayu will have an airfield with a longer runway to take the Indian Navy’s P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft. The base will also have medium- and long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

India has bases in Kochi in Kerala and Karwar on the Karnataka coast.  Phase IIA of Project Seabird in Karwar envisages the berthing of 32 ships and submarines, The Hindu said.

Call for Information War  

Meanwhile, in the Maldives, the opposition led by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has expressed disapproval of President Muizzu’s lurch towards China, abandoning India.

Mohamed Nasheed, a former President, said at the Republic TV conclave in New Delhi, that he prefers India over China in matters concerning developmental aid. Other leaders of the opposition MDP like its current chief Abdulla Shahid and former Defence Maria Ahmed Didi have decried Muizzu anti-Indian moves.  

At the Republic TV conclave, iIn Nasheed’s presence, Indian Prime Minister Modi suggested that there should be a news agency that would serve other countries like for example, the Maldives. Perhaps this was a call to the Indian media to launch an information war against India’s detractors.

India-China Border

Meanwhile, to take care of any hostile Chinese moves on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh, India recently moved 10,000 troops from the India-Pakistan border to Ladakh.

Interestingly, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) of Britain recently ran a commentary titled “War Clouds over the Indian Horizon?”, written by Samir Tata, the founder and President of International Political Risk Analytics. According to EurAsian Times Tata predicted that “the second China–India War will most likely be fought in Eastern Ladakh in India’s far northwest region sometime between 2025 and 2030.”

Tata’s reasoning is that China views Eastern Ladakh through the lens of energy security and that will push China and India to war. “Eastern Ladakh is the only pathway from which a hostile power can launch an attack to invade and occupy Kashgar, China’s crucial energy entrepot in the far Western province of Xinjiang. A vital pillar of China’s energy security is the planned land-based pipeline connecting Iran’s oil and gas fields to Kashgar, transiting through Pakistan via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC),” Tata points out.

However, Prof. Muqtedar Khan, an international affairs expert in the University of Delaware, discounted Tata’s thesis saying that it smacked of Western propaganda to make India and China fight. But he cautioned India about the possibility of an Islamic challenge to it in the Western Indian Ocean with a hostile Pakistan in the North and a hostile Maldives in the South working in tandem with a hostile China.