IDSA COMMENT

India, Maldives and the Indian Ocean

October 13, 2009

India has signed a bilateral pact with the Maldives to counter China’s strategic growing presence in the Indian Ocean region. The pact was signed in August 2009 during Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s visit there. He was accompanied by an Indian military delegation which included top navy officials. Under the pact, the two countries have agreed to bolster defence co-operation aimed at fortifying the security of Maldives. India will set up a network of 26 radars across the Maldives’ 26 atolls, which will be linked to the Indian coastal command. In addition, India will also establish an air force station from where Dornier aircraft will carry out surveillance flights. The station will also host Indian military helicopters. India has also pledged to build a 25-bed military hospital in Male.

The Maldives forms a vital cog in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. According to Robert D. Kaplan, the Indian Ocean could be at the centre of an emerging rivalry between India and China in the coming decades, with the United States playing the role of a moderator. Traditionally, all great powers that aspired to control the Indian Ocean have sought a base in the Maldives – Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The southern most island of the Maldives, the Gan Island in the Seenu Atoll, served as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War II. Gan met the requirements for safe, deep anchorage in a strategic area. In addition to Gan, Antsiranana (Diego-Suarez), Diego Garcia, Aldabra and Farquhar islands and Île Desroches in Seychelles are other important strategic locations in the Western Indian Ocean. The Naval Base in Gan was set up by Britain in response to Japanese advances against Singapore and Indonesia during World War II. During the Cold War, in 1957, it was transferred to the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF vacated it in 1971 after Maldives gained independence in 1965. Following the British departure, the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Gadaffi of Libya, and the Soviet Union all tried to secure the Gan Island base to counter the US military presence in Diego Garcia.

The network of radars that India will be installing in the Maldives is chiefly to benefit the island nation which does not have a Navy of its own. During discussions, the Maldivian authorities had expressed concerns over the “crucial tasks of safeguarding and protecting their vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Maldives, while expressing its need to develop and enhance maritime surveillance and aerial mobility capabilities.” Maldivian President, Mohammed Nasheed has said that the installation of the radars was already in progress across 10 atolls. He said that massive poaching in the coral reefs and illegal commercial fishing by foreign trawlers in Maldivian waters have had an adverse impact on the island nation’s marine life and that with India’s active co-operation such illegal activities would be curbed. The Indian navy and coastguard vessels will patrol the pirate-infested waters around the Maldives. Earlier in April 2006, as a good will gesture India had gifted the fast attack craft, INS Tilanchang to the Maldives.

From the Indian perspective, the pact is driven by the strategic importance of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean scheme of things as well as by the need to thwart any further seaborne terror attacks on the country. The island nation could serve as a potential launch pad for terrorists targeting India and there are concerns about the activities of radical elements in the Maldives. In 2007, evidence emerged of Islamist activity in the Maldives, including the bombing of tourist resorts in Male’s Sultan Park and the establishment of a Sharia-based mini-state on the Island of Himandhoo. In addition, Indian intelligence agencies have come across information that Faisal Haroun, a top Lashkar-e–Taiba operative who earlier oversaw the group’s India-focused operations from Bangladesh, has had been attempting to set up an Indian Ocean base for the group. Along with a Male-based Maldives resident, Ali Assham, Haroun has studied how to use a deserted Indian Ocean island to build a weapons storehouse, from where they could be moved to Kerala and then on to the rest of India.

India’s forging of defence ties with the Maldives is also driven by the growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. It appears that India is courting new allies to ensure that the Indian Ocean does not become a Chinese lake in the long run.