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Harsh V. Pant

The Indian Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, was in Maldives a few days back trying to give a boost to India-Maldives defence ties. He was there ostensibly to inaugurate ‘Senahiya’ a military hospital built with Indian assistance but what his visit really underscored was the reality that a change of government in Male is not likely to affect the course of ties between the two nations. As Antony made clear “India has always considered its relations with Maldives as very special.” And the Defence Minister of 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 Maldives, was ousted from power in a military putsch earlier this year in February and since then has reached out to the new President, Mohamed Waheed, assuring him of New Delhi’s continuing cooperation. The reason has been very simple: India simply cannot afford to alienate the government in Male given China’s growing reach. The President of Maldives was in China earlier this month when Beijing announced a $500 million package of economic assistance for Male. New 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 elevate defence cooperation with New Delhi deciding to station a Defence Attaché in Male, extending the deployment of its ALH Dhruv helicopter by two more years, providing training to Maldivian Air Wing, positioning an Indian Navy Afloat Support Team to train Maldivian naval personnel and providing assistance for the surveillance of the Exclusive Economic Zone. New Delhi and Male underscored the importance of these measures as a sign of a united front against challenges of terrorism and non-state actors.

The small island nation, despite its size, has suddenly become a hotly contested arena between the two rising powers in the region, China and India. India had always viewed Maldives as important for maintaining security in the Indian Ocean region but recent attempts by Beijing to expand its footprint in Maldives and the larger Indian Ocean region have raised the stakes for New Delhi. China has been busy forging special ties with various island nations on India’s periphery including Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.

China’s attempt to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean came into stark relief last year when reports emerged of an offer from Seychelles – another small but strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean – to China for a base to provide relief and resupply facilities to the PLA Navy. Though it was promptly denied by Beijing, it underscored the changing balance of power in the Indian Ocean region and the concomitant changes it might eventually lead to. India has traditionally been the main defence provider for Seychelles – providing armaments and training to the Seychelles Peoples’ Defence Forces (SPDF). Earlier this year, India extended a $50 million line of credit and $25 million grant to Seychelles in an attempt to cement strategic ties with the island nation.

But China has been extremely proactive in courting Seychelles since the Chinese President, Hu Jintao’s visit to the island nation in 2007. Much to India’s consternation, Beijing is now involved in the training of SPDF and is also providing military hardware. China has expanded its military cooperation with Seychelles, helping in the maritime surveillance of the EEZ by providing it two Y-2 turboprop aircrafts.

The Chinese Defence Minister was in Sri Lanka earlier this month to offer support worth $100 million for various welfare projects in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, areas that were beset with Tamil insurgency. At a time when the domestic political constraints have made it difficult for New Delhi to reach out to Colombo, Beijing has been quick to fill that vacuum. Even Mauritius, whose security is virtually guaranteed by Indian naval presence, has been unable to resist the lure of Beijing.

With the rise in the military capabilities of China and India, the two militaries are increasingly rubbing against each other as China expands its presence in the Indian Ocean region and India makes its presence felt in East and Southeast Asia. The Indian Ambassador to the US recently suggested that South China Sea could be viewed “as the ante chamber of Indian Ocean” and India was looking at “freedom of navigation, looking at trade, at humanitarian assistance to disaster relief.” New Delhi has seen China getting into confrontations over barren rocks in 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 that this competitive dynamic doesn’t spill over into an open conflict. Despite all the hyperbole in New 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 as well for the management for global maritime commons. This is something that New Delhi and Washington will have to seriously think about as the balance of power alters rapidly in the Indian Ocean region.

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