Maldives: Emerging Theater of Great Game
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The Republic of Maldives is a group of small coral islands in the Indian Ocean region South of India. The country comprises of 1190 islands, of which only 198 islands, grouped in 20 atolls are permanently inhabited. The total area covered by the archipelago is 90,000 square kilometers. The chain of islands is confined to 820 kilometers in length and covers 130 kilometers in width. Maldives estimated population is about 3,00,000 with the capital Maale accounting for 26 per cent of the total population.
Maldives is about 150 kilometers from the Indian mainland and less than an hour flight from any south Indian international airports. However, if we compare Maldives with other South Asian countries, it hardly figures in the Indian media discourse. The standard explanation is, nothing happens in the nation of islands, so no news is good news. However this is not true. There are many activities going on in Maldives that needs India’s attention and the world at large.
India, China Maldives
A great game is on between India and China to take Maldives in its sphere of influence for the control of the Indian Ocean region. Presently more than 260 billion USD worth of oil and gas pass through the Indian Ocean and a base in Maldives by either country would directly infulence the oil commerce. Therefore India and China both are keen to woo Maldives for their strategic interests.
Since the year 2000, there has been a series of high-level contact going on between Maldivian government and senior Chinese officials. As many as five senior Chinese officials visited Maldives, prior to the visit of former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongi's in May 2001. The Chinese apparently have been in Maale for boosting bilateral trade and to provide assistance for infrastructure development but that’s not all about it.
The speculation since then has been that some high profile negotiation is going on for setting up a permanent Chinese Naval base in Maldives. However, Maldivian President Abdul Gayoom had scotched off such rumors way back in August 2000 on his visit to India. He categorically stated that Maldives was not entertaining any proposal of Chinese naval base since it enjoys excellent defence cooperation with India.
However, the news refused to die down and again surfaced with a report that between 2003 and 2004, China engaged two American and three European companies to conduct aerial and deep-sea surveys. The agreement with the companies was apparently to monitor the weather and magnetic response of the seabed but hidden agenda behind such surveys could not be ruled out.
The issue again becomes a hot topic of discussion after President Gyaoom's made three-day state visit to China in September 2006. Although the public stress was on economic cooperation, there was an increasing concern about China’s military-strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean region.
Indian security sources have repeatedly been saying that ever since Maldives has leased its ‘Marao Island’ to China in 1999 for maritime traffic management there are sings that the island is also being used by the Chinese to monitor Indian and U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean, and could be developed into a submarine base in the future.
India's defense analysts are peeved about the growing Chinese- Maldives relationship. They say a base in Maldives will put China in direct confrontation with India, a prospect that daunts New Delhi, scares Southeast Asian countries and alarms the US.
It would be naive to think that India is not aware of the developments in Maldives. In fact since the Indian troops helped thwart an attack by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries in Maldives in 1988, India -Maldives relationship has been growing from strength to strength. Indian navy vessels patrol the water around the Maldivian archipelago and keep watch over its sea-lanes.
India and Maldives have signed a number of agreements in areas such as information technology, customs, culture, and air service. India is helping Maldives in the implementation of a number of projects under an agreement on economic and technical cooperation. India is also the largest source of manpower recruitment for Maldives.
Alongside there has been many a high profile diplomatic exchanges going on between India and Maldives. This includes Indian ex naval chief Sushil Kumar visit to Male a few years ago. This was followed by the visit of Maldives defence minister Major General Abdul Sattar Ambaree’s (the current High Commissioner to India) to New Delhi. This was reciprocated by India’s then Defense Minister George Fernandes visit to Maldives.
Since then there has been no letup in the high level contact between the two countries. India recently presented INS Tillanchang, a 260-ton fast attack craft commissioned in 2001 to Maldives. This craft is designed for quick and covert operations against smugglers, gunrunners and terrorists. India has also provided Maldives with armored cars and other military equipments. Besides, it has also trained Maldivian paratroopers in counter insurgency operations.
All theses points that India and Maldives is maintaining a fair amount of close contact with each other and the threat perception about Chinese Naval base in Maldives could be more imaginary than real.
Construction of Deepwater Harbor
The other big news from Maldives is that Gyaoom’s government has recently singed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a Kuwaiti company to build and operate a trans-shipment port in the northern most atoll of the country.
The deep-water harbor project has been on the table since 2001when a European consortium was granted the right to build and manage a transshipment port. However, the project got delayed due to lack of proper legislature on foreign investment and land lease. The Maldives government then revoked the MoU claming that the project was not being implemented on schedule. The contract is now been granted to a Kuwaiti company whose identity is yet to be disclosed.
The construction of deep-water harbor by some third party in Maldives has raised concerns in India. Indian security analysts say that a transshipment port in such a close proximity is potential security risk to both India and the region. They argue that the UN has declared Maldives as “potential vulnerable as a point for the illegal shipment of precursor chemicals or large quantities of drugs destined for other countries.” The proposal to build a deep-water port in the north of the country is therefore a matter of grave concern to India.
Indian government has not made any comment on this development in Maldives. Indian media too seems to be occupied with every thing except Maldives. There seems to be a general consensus that India- Maldives shares a model relationship based on geographical proximity and cultural ties that’s steeped in history.
However, the necessities of the geopolitics demand India should give a fresh look to its ties with Maldives. Today, India-Maldives relationship has become crucial than ever before because the long-term economic and strategic interests of both countries are entwined in the Indian Ocean region. A slight deviation to it may have grave consequences. Therefore, all efforts should be made not to allow Maldives become a theater of another Great Game.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist, based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org