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.
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.