The Indian defence minister, A.K. Antony, was in the Maldives a few days ago, trying to give a boost to the India-Maldives defence ties. He was there ostensibly to inaugurate Senahiya, a military hospital built with Indian assistance, but what his visit actually underscored was the reality that a change of government in Male is not likely to affect the ties between the two nations. As Anthony made clear: “India has always considered its relations with Maldives as very special.” And the defence minister of the Maldives, Mohamed Nazim, reciprocated by adding, “Governments will change both in the Maldives and India. Yet the enduring friendship that exists between the two countries will only improve and expand.”
India refused to take sides when Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, was ousted from power in a military putsch earlier this year. Since then, India has reached out to the new president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, assuring him of Delhi’s continuing cooperation. The reason is very simple: India simply cannot afford to alienate the government in Male given China’s growing reach. Delhi views Maldives as central to the emerging strategic landscape in the Indian Ocean as it straddles the vital sea lines of communication between East Asia and the Middle East.
During the latest visit of the Indian defence minister, the two sides decided to augment defence cooperation with Delhi by agreeing to station a defence attaché in Male, extending the deployment of its Dhruv helicopter by two more years, providing training to the Maldivian air wing, positioning an Indian navy support team to train Maldivian naval personnel and providing assistance for the surveillance of the exclusive economic zone. Delhi and Male underscored the importance of these measures as a sign of putting up a united front against the challenges of terrorism and non-State actors.
The island nation, despite its size, has suddenly become a hotly contested arena for the two rising powers in the region, China and India. India had always viewed the Maldives as important for maintaining security in the Indian Ocean region. But recent attempts by Beijing to increase its footprints in the Maldives and in the Indian Ocean region have raised the stakes for Delhi. China has been busy forging special ties with various island nations on India’s periphery, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.
China has been proactive in courting Seychelles from the time of the visit of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, to the island nation in 2007. Much to India’s consternation, Beijing is now involved in the training of the Seychelles People’s Defence Forces and is also providing military hardware. With the rise in the military capabilities of China and India, the two militaries are increasingly rubbing against each other. The Indian ambassador to the United States of America recently suggested that South China Sea could be viewed “as the ante chamber of Indian Ocean”. Delhi has seen China getting into confrontations over barren rocks in the South and East China Seas and is drawing its own lessons.
The security dilemma between China and India is real and it is growing. The question is whether the two nations can manage it in a way so that this competitive dynamic does not become an open conflict. Despite all the hyperbole in Delhi about the continuing attractions of ‘non-alignment,’ there is no alternative to strong US-India maritime cooperation —not only to manage China’s rising strategic profile in the Indian Ocean but also for the management of the global maritime commons. This is something that Delhi and Washington will have to seriously think about as the balance of power alters rapidly in the Indian Ocean region.