Colombo, February 5: The Indo-Maldivian conflict over increasing Chinese influence on the Maldives since Mohamed Muizzu became President, now appears to be heading for a flash point.
While the Maldives is readying to host a Chinese “research” vessel which India claims is a “spy” vessel, the Maldives is accusing the Indian Coast Guard of intimidating Maldivian fishermen in Maldivian waters, not once, but twice, in the past few days.
These could have serious repercussions unless taken up and defused at the highest levels in the two countries.
The website www.maldivesrepublic.mvreported that a Maldivian fishing boat, ‘Maahoara-3,’ was stopped and searched by Indian soldiers for a second time on February 3 while the vessels were fishing within the country’s territorial waters.
The location was in the vicinity of a previous boarding incident on January 31.
The boat’s captain, Ibrahim Rasheed, recounting the ordeal to the local media, stated that the event occurred around midnight on Saturday, three miles from a buoy, near Molhadhoo in the Haa Alifu Atoll.
According to Rasheed, armed Indian military officers boarded the fishing vessel and demanded that the crew hand over their satellite phones—a request firmly rejected by the crew, citing instructions from the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).
Rashid highlighted the aggressive posture of the Indian personnel, who kept their weapons aimed at the crew during the verbal confrontation, claiming that it was the protocol during such operations.
This incident follows a similar confrontation on January 31, in which ‘Maahoara-3,’ along with ‘Neru-7’ and ‘Asurumaa-3,’ were boarded and searched by Indian Coastguard officers.
In both instances, the Indian soldiers sought the boats’ satellite phone numbers. The soldiers in the second confrontation were reportedly from a different naval vessel than the one involved in the earlier incident.
The Bodu Kanneli Masveringe Union (BKMU), which had previously highlighted the January 31 boarding, confirmed the latest incident.
The Maldivian Defence Ministry issued a strong statement accusing India of violating international maritime laws by intruding into the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
It noted that the Maldives government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hadformally requested India to provide explanation for the boarding of Maldivian fishing vessels by the Indian Coast Guard personnel without prior notice or coordination with the relevant Maldivian authorities.
In the statement, the Defence Ministry identified the Indian vessels as “Indian coastguard ship 246” and “Indian coastguard ship 253.”
Former President Solih Condemns Intrusion
Meanwhile former Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih, who is pro-India, condemned the Indian intrusion.
“No one should be allowed to enter the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) without permission. Such action is wrong and no country should encroach on the territory of another country,” he said.
Chinese Research Vessel
It is the expected arrival of a Chinese research ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 in the Maldives later this week that has heightened tension between India and the Maldives.
Officially, Xiang Yang Hong 3 is to “make a port call for rotation of personnel and replenishment”, which is innocuous. But India does not view it as innocuous. India feels that this vessel and other such Chinese “research” vessels are actually studying the seas in the Western Indian Ocean from the point of view of submarine warfare.
China experts, however, have shrugged off their concerns, BBC reports.
“The Chinese ships carry out scientific research work in the Indian ocean. Its activities on the high seas 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,” Zhou, who is now with the Tsinghua university in Beijing, asserted.
In December, the Muizzu administration announced that it would not renew a hydrographic survey agreement with India that was signed by the previous government to map the seabed in the Maldivian territorial waters. But during Muizzu’s visit to China, he signed an agreement to do joint work on the Blue Economy and another on forming a “strategic alliance”. These two raised the hackles in New Delhi.
China and India compete for influence in the Indian Ocean even as they quarrel over their Himalayan borders
Two Chinese naval submarines made a port call to Colombo in 2014 and two Chinese research vessels visited Sri Lanka recently, causing concern in India.
The arrivals resulted in billions of dollars of loans to Colombo, which Colombo is unable to repay. The debt is keeping Sri Lanka chained to China.
Xiang Yang Hong 3, had in fact planned to visit Colombo for replenishment before proceeding to the Maldives. But that has been shelved because Sri Lanka has clamped a moratorium on visits by research vessels from all countries for a year.
But India is not happy with the moratorium on vessels from all countries including India. India wants a moratorium only on Chinese vessels. Sri Lanka has not obliged because it feels beholden to Beijing for economic aid as indeed it is beholden to India.
Sri Lanka’s excuse for the blanket moratorium as stated by the State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya to the BBC was that Sri Lanka needed time to develop the technology and expertise to participate in ocean research activities on an equal basis.
Evacuation of Indian Military Personnel
Meanwhile, the Indo-Maldivian row over the evacuation of the 88 Indian military personnel manning two choppers and a Dornier aircraft doing medical evacuation work is continuingthough in an attenuated form.
After the joint Core Group met in New Delhi recently, the Maldivians announced that India had agreed to begin evacuation on March 10 and complete it by May 10.
But the Indian statement did not mention any dates. It only said that both India and the Maldives had “agreed on a set of mutually workable solutions to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medical evacuation services to the people of the Maldives.”
India also talked of “replacement” of personnel, not “withdrawal”. It appears that the military personnel might be replaced by civilians.
Maldivian-Sri Lanka Agreement
Since the Maldivians had ceased to use the services of the Indian military personnel and planes, they entered into an agreement with Sri Lanka for help in medical evacuation and treatment in Sri Lankan hospitals.
But this may not go down well with India, which expects Sri Lanka not to undercut India in such sensitive matters.