Race Across the Waves

Strate­gi­cally lo­cated on the mar­itime trade routes of the In­dian Ocean, the Mal­dives has been equally eyed for in­flu­ence by su­per­pow­ers and re­gional in­ter­ests.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Ha­roon Jan­jua

The term ‘arms race’ is fre­quently used to de­scribe the mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion in South Asia. An arms race is a com­pe­ti­tion or ri­valry between two or more coun­tries for ac­qui­si­tion and de­ploy­ment of the lat­est weapons. In the con­text of South Asia, the phe­nom­e­non is fast turn­ing into a dan­ger­ous devel­op­ment as all the coun­tries of the re­gion are vy­ing for so­phis­ti­cated war weapons.

Strate­gi­cally lo­cated within the mar­itime trade routes of the In­dian Ocean, the Mal­dives has been eyed by su­per­pow­ers, in­clud­ing the U.S., Rus­sia and China, for its unique po­si­tion in the In­dian Ocean. With the prospects of the U.S. having to va­cate the Diego Gar­cia Base due to Mau­ri­tius’ claims on the is­land, the U.S. is scout­ing for new bases in the re­gion.

Al­ready, the U.S. is push­ing the Mal­di­vian gov­ern­ment to sign a Sta­tus of Forces Agree­ment (SOFA) to build mil­i­tary bases in the coun­try. It is an­other sig­nif­i­cant move by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and is also a part of Amer­ica’s ag­gres­sive “Pivot to Asia” pol­icy with the aim to mil­i­tar­ily en­cir­cle China in the vast Indo-Pacific

the­atre. China, which has its own am­bi­tions to be­come a great sea power, has of­fered aid to the Mal­dives for devel­op­ment of de­fense pro­jects, in­clud­ing a naval base.

The Mal­dives is a mem­ber of SAARC. It con­sid­ers In­dia as an all­weather friend de­spite some hic­cups in re­la­tions when In­dia sup­ported Mo­ham­mad Nasheed in­stead of Mo­hamed Wa­heed who had ar­bi­trar­ily can­celled the $511 mil­lion in­ter­na­tional air­port project in Male, un­der­taken by an In­dian com­pany, the GMR Group.

How­ever, both coun­tries mended their fences soon and now the Mal­dives is seek­ing mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion and help from In­dia in a big way, es­pe­cially in de­vel­op­ing a new naval base near Male, while New Delhi is also con­sid­er­ing the Mal­dives’ re­quest for as­sis­tance in de­vel­op­ing a base at Uthuru Thila Falhu.

The new naval base, ex­pected to cost more than Rs.3,000 crore, would be lo­cated a few miles north­west of Male and would in­volve set­ting up of berthing fa­cil­i­ties, re­pair sta­tions as well as a train­ing fa­cil­ity and hous­ing com­plex for troops.

This project and sev­eral other prospects for co­op­er­a­tion in the de­fense field were dis­cussed dur­ing the visit of In­dian Army Chief Gen­eral Bikram Singh who met the Mal­di­vian Na­tional De­fense Forces lead­er­ship in May this year.

In­dian For­eign Sec­re­tary Su­jatha Singh also vis­ited the lo­ca­tion of the pro­posed naval base, which is planned to house the MNDF Coast Guard. The For­eign Sec­re­tary was briefed on the tech­ni­cal as­pects of the project.

It is be­lieved that China has also of­fered as­sis­tance to the Mal­dives for the devel­op­ment of the naval project. In Fe­bru­ary 2012, ousted pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Nasheed had told the In­dian

Ex­press that just a week be­fore he lost power, he was un­der high pres­sure from his armed forces to sign a de­fense agree­ment with China, a pact that he had been re­fus­ing to sign for three months.

Be­sides the base, the MNDF is also seek­ing In­dia’s as­sis­tance in strength­en­ing it­self and has ex­pressed a keen in­ter­est in ad­di­tional Ad­vanced Light He­li­copters (ALH), am­phibi­ous fast at­tack craft as well as small arms for its per­son­nel.

A project to train 40 to sixty ad­di­tional Mal­di­vian Na­tional De­fense Forces per­son­nel in In­dian acad­e­mies is also un­der dis­cus­sion. In­dia is likely to con­sider the Mal­dives’ re­quest for coastal sur­veil­lance radars which the lat­ter needs in or­der to re­fo­cus on strength­en­ing its de­fense af­ter the re­cent spurt in piracy close to its wa­ters.

Dur­ing the visit of Pres­i­dent Ab­dul Gay­oom to In­dia to at­tend the swear­ing in cer­e­mony of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, the two had long dis­cus­sions about co-op­er­a­tion between the two coun­tries.

In­dia has adopted a clear strat­egy to re­duce the in­flu­ence of China on the Mal­dives, in the in­ter­est of the se­cu­rity of the In­dian Ocean re­gion. It also wants to keep Pak­istan at bay as Pak­istan is try­ing to broaden de­fense re­la­tions and is aim­ing at the ex­pan­sion of co­op­er­a­tion in mil­i­tary train­ing, joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises and de­fense pro­duc­tion with the Mal­dives. The chief of the de­fense forces of the Mal­dives vis­ited Pak­istan in March 2014 for talks with Pak­istan's de­fense sec­re­tary.

In­dia has rea­sons to be wor­ried with the grow­ing ties between Pak­istan and the Mal­dives. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say that af­ter the bomb­ing at the Sul­tan Park in Male in 2007, there was a crack­down on fun­da­men­tal­ists in the Mal­dives. Sev­eral al­legedly fled to Pak­istan. Ali Jaleel, a Mal­di­vian na­tional, had par­tic­i­pated in the May 27, 2009, sui­cide at­tack on the ISI of­fice in La­hore. He was linked to Al Qaeda and CDs ask­ing "Mal­di­vian broth­ers" to join the ji­had were re­cov­ered from him. "Pak­istan has launched a sus­tained campaign to in­doc­tri­nate the Mal­di­vians. The spread of rad­i­cal­ism in Mal­di­vian so­ci­ety has in­creased. In­dia needs to have a more hands-on ap­proach," said Ajit Do­val, the new Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser of the Modi gov­ern­ment.

Mal­dives is a small coun­try. The SAARC pow­ers as well as in­ter­na­tional pow­ers should not play with the future of this tourist par­adise. In­stead, they should pro­tect the Mal­dives and ad­dress the other prob­lems it is fac­ing, such as the rise in the sea level which is en­dan­ger­ing the coun­try’s very ex­is­tence.

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