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Navy eyes Maldives
- Counter to China’s ‘string of pearls’ plan

New Delhi, Aug. 19: A tiny pearl of an island with a former World War II airbase in the Maldives is now the Indian Navy’s strategic object of desire.

Defence minister A.K. Antony’s visit to the Maldives with a high-level team for three days starting tomorrow will not name Gan, or Addu Atoll, where the coral island is located, just south of the equator.

But the navy wants a permanent presence in Gan for its surveillance aircraft, along with a presence of its ships and other aircraft in both Male, the capital of the Maldives, and Hanimadhoo, in the Haa Dhalu Atoll in the island country’s north, which is barely 20 nautical miles (37km) south of the Indian islands of Minicoy.

As India and China seek to expand their influence in the Indian Ocean region, territories barely marked on maps are popping up like beacons in the vast blue. Gan, in Addu Atoll, is the latest.

The Indian delegation is likely to propose building or renovating a hospital in the Maldives. Antony is accompanied by, among others, the director general of the Armed Forces Medical Services, Lieutenant General N.K. Parmar.

Navy officials agreed that Gan was of “great strategic importance” but were reluctant to describe their idea of a presence there as a “naval base”.

“It is important for us to station assets there. That does not mean taking it over. In fact, we have flown our aircraft from there. We want to station there now,” a senior official said.

India does not expect this to happen overnight. Antony is expected to begin an essay in persuasion, with goodies thrown in, and a review of mutual benefits at the discussions tomorrow.

This is how New Delhi hopes to sell the idea of a listening post in Gan, or Addu, to Male: You have concerns over your environmentally fragile exclusive economic zone and about patrolling and policing your far-flung islands, some of which are uninhabited. And we, the Indian Navy, are the “regional stabilising force” in the Indian Ocean.

Indian officials will make the point that the navy is, in any case, patrolling waters a mere 15 nautical miles from the Maldives.

The group of coral islands that make up the Maldives is about 600km from its north to south.

The Maldives does not have a navy. India will offer to patrol and keep an eye over its territories. For India, the benefit: it gets a listening post that will monitor movement of Chinese vessels as they sail to and from Africa. More than 60 per cent of Chinese oil imports are assessed to be sourced from Africa.

New Delhi’s military establishment is wary of China’s “string of pearls” strategy — the phrase used to describe the pockets of influence that Beijing wants to dot around India, starting with the port of Gwadar in Pakistan to the port of Hambantota, which China is developing in the southern tip of Sri Lanka, to Myanmarese and Bangladeshi ports in the Bay of Bengal.

India has over the years tried to develop military bases overseas without great success. Its first has been in Farkhor and Ayni. Ayni is about 10km south of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan on its north.

Pakistan and China find an Indian military presence in Farkhor, also in Tajikistan, threatening.

An Indian military presence in Gan — formerly the RAF Gan, so named after the British navy built it for its fleet air arm and then handed it over to the Royal Air Force — means an extension of reach for its navy. The Indian Navy sees its area of responsibility in the ocean covering the space between the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Straits.

Antony will also be accompanied by defence secretary Pradeep Kumar, director-general of the coast guard, Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, and deputy chief of navy staff, Vice Admiral D.K. Joshi.

Antony is scheduled to meet Maldives’ President Mohammed Nasheed shortly after landing. In the back-to-back meetings tomorrow, the delegation will talk to officials and ministers in Male and to the Maldives National Defence Force.

A defence ministry release today said Antony “will also attend the closing session of the India-Maldives Friendship function besides paying a visit to the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, the most visible symbol of Indo-Maldives cooperation and friendship.”

India was the first to recognise Maldives after its independence in 1965. In 1988 India’s military launched Operation Cactus to foil a coup attempt in Male. In April 2006, India gifted a fast-attack craft, the INS Tillanchang, to the Maldives.

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