Last week, the Nikkei Asian Review reported that the Maldivian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Abdulla Shahid, and the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Mrs Sushma Sawaraj, were discussing the permanent stationing of Indian military personnel in the Maldives in exchange for a USD$1 billion loan granted by India to the “cash-strapped” island nation.
This report stirred up controversy in the Maldives, with renewed attention being paid to the controversial helicopters and military personnel stationed in Iskandhar Air Base, in the south of the Maldives.
In response to these concerns, the Maldivian Minister of Defence, Mariya Didi, appeared on the pro-government media channel RaajjeTV in an attempt to allay public fears. She denied the report in the Nikkei Asian Review as untrue, and she posed the Maldivian situation as being forced to decide between India and China. “China is a country on the Pacific Ocean. Their military is stationed around there. If we were to practically maintain security ties with China, we need to give them a military base”, she said.
“However, India is nearby and their military is there. If we need their help, India is within reach and ready to provide it. So, let’s not change the facts to score political points”, said the Minister. She said that the Maldives had no intention of granting a military base to any foreign nation.
The Defence Minister used her appearance on RaajjeTV to praise the Indian Army and the contribution of India to the Maldives. The Defence Minister, who had previously criticized the Maldivian military for their “cowardice”, appeared to be attempting to normalize the idea of an India which was heavily involved in matters of Maldivian defense.
The Maldivian constitution prohibits the lease of land for military use except by unanimous consensus of the Majlis (251(c) in its official English translation). Given the growing web cracks in the ruling coalition, as well as the sizeable opposition, such a consensus is highly unlikely.
However, the devil is in the details as the constitution does not prohibit the presence of military personnel in the Maldives. The President does not require the consent of the Majlis to invite foreign military, and they can stay within the country for as long as they are permitted to by the executive.
At the time of this writing, the Maldives currently plays host to two Indian-gifted choppers, one at Iskandhar Air Base in Laamu Atoll and another in Gan in Addu City, in addition to forty-eight Indian military personnel to accompany these choppers. They were “gifted” to the Maldives in 2010, after an agreement had been made with the then-President Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party to which the newly-appointed Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister and the current President belong. The agreement had stated that Maldivian personnel be trained in the handling and maintenance of these choppers, and for the eight years since then the Maldivian military had not received any cooperation from the Indians in this regard. The Defence Minister remarked that “India claimed that the Maldivian military has not yet chosen people to be trained in the past eight years”.
India has long since been wary of the strengthening Chinese relationship with the Maldives; and a strong military presence on the geostrategic location appears to have become an option for New Delhi.
During the political crisis of February 2018, the Irish Times reported that senior military sources in New Delhi had said that the country’s special forces and naval and air force assets were on standby for “conceivable employment at short notice” to the Maldives to “restore order”. Some months later, BJP parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy had called for the Maldives to be “invaded” if election-rigging took place in September.
By the end of November 2018, a Maldivian news website Vaguthu reported that the Indian government was planning to “gift” a military aircraft, with accompanying personnel, to the Maldives with plans to accommodate it in Hanimaadhoo Airport, in the north of the country.
The deal reported in the Nikkei Asian Review has ominous similarities to an earlier offer which India had made to another Indian Ocean island nation in the early months of 2018. Prime MInister Modi offered the Seychelles a USD$100 million line of credit for building of military facilities on Assumption Island, one of the Outer Islands of the Seychelles.
We may not see what is technically Indian military base in the Maldives, however this does not exclude a stronger Indian presence in the island nation. India and President Solih can still agree to set up a military base without a military base.
India has already done this in Bhutan.
Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan nation which shares borders with both India and China. New Delhi has managed to establish a permanent military presence in Bhutan without establishing an official base. There is nothing stopping them here in the Maldives.
In 1949, the newly-created state of India signed a Treaty of Friendship with Bhutan, calling for peace between the two nations and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Bhutan permitted and welcomed India to “guide” its foreign policy, and agreed to carrying out foreign and security matters through close consultation with India.
India currently maintains a training mission in Bhutan, the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT).
The Indian-run Project DANTAK, run by the Indian Army Corps of Engineers, has been running in Bhutan since 1961. Since then, Project DANTAK has been responsible for the construction and maintenance of over 1,500 km of roads and bridges, Paro Airport, a disused airfield at Yangphula, heliports, and other infrastructure.
While they have been touted as being for the economic benefit of the people of Bhutan, they were obviously placed there in service of India’s strategic defence needs.
We have seen this same strategy unfold during the Nasheed administration when India coaxed Mr Nasheed to sign an agreement in order to set up a training centre. The Waheed administration, which came to power after the Feb 7th coup, allocated lands in Addu City, in the south of the Maldives, for this purpose. Construction of this so-called “training facility” had slowed down as ties between New Delhi and Maale deteriorated under Mr Yameen Abdul Gayyoom’s presidency.
Drone photographs of this facility show that multiple buildings and deep concrete foundations. There are shapes which appear to be helipads. The complex appears less like an average training facility and suspiciously like a military base.
Not long after the election of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, his party’s leader Mohamed Nasheed returned to the Maldives from self-exile. As President Solih was preparing for his inauguration ceremony, Mr Nasheed took an impromptu trip to Addu City to address his near-fanatical following there.
“We’re seeing a shift in the Indian Ocean. There’s a cold war brewing in the Indian Ocean,” he said. A small plane buzzed overhead in the late afternoon sky. “This is a fact not lost on the people of Addu. The city of Addu will face the brunt of the grievance between India and China.”
“But I believe Addu will ultimately bring stability to this region,” he added.
His speech was almost intentionally vague. No specifics were mentioned. Nothing substantive was said. However, analysts have wondered whether the “training facility” that’s under construction in the atoll may factor into this “stability” which Addu would allegedly bring.
In the days since the Nikkei Asian Review, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid has joined Defence Minister Mariya Didi in denying that a military base was ever on the table. On Twitter, he wrote that he “categorically” denied the reports, and decried them as “ baseless” and written with the political agenda of “discrediting the government”.
Any reasons as to why the Nikkei Asian Review would wish to discredit the Maldivian government is not quite clear.
While Bhutan still remains under Indian “friendship”, the Seychelles saw the Indian offer of cooperation for what it was. The pact signed by President Faure and Prime Minister Modi was blocked by the Seychelles parliament in June. Opposition parliamentarians had argued that “allowing India access to Assumption, which is near a busy shipping route, would be surrendering territory to another country and joint management of the facility with India undermined the … island nation’s sovereignty”.
As rumours spread that President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih would be travelling to India to sign the finalized agreement with India, it is up to the Maldivian parliament to look beyond the sea and investigate what has happened in Bhutan, in the Seychelles, and even in Sikkim.