April 2024

Security at sea

With Sri Lanka favouring closer links with India rather than China, Beijing is developing military ties with the Maldives. Amit Agnihotri assesses the shifting regional relationships

In key geopolitical developments in the Indian Ocean region, Sri Lanka is moving closer to India, having realised the pitfalls of its friendship with China, while the Maldives is trying to deepen ties with the Asian Dragon.

Both island nations are key to India’s ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies. Therefore, any Chinese misadventure in the Indian Ocean region has always invited sharp reactions from New Delhi.

Over the past decades, power tussles between India and China have intensified as Beijing tried to contain New Delhi’s sphere of influence in South Asia, including the island nations in the Indian Ocean Region.

China has gradually expanded its presence in the Indian Ocean Region by deploying a number of ships and submarines to collect hydrographic data that can also be used to operate submarines and detect enemy undersea platforms.

As India pursued its ballistic missile tests, in order to be able to reach targets deep inside China, Beijing’s research-cum-spy vessels in the Indian Ocean provided the Asian Dragon with an opportunity to snoop around.

The Indian Ocean is an important region for China as several infrastructure projects funded under the controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) fall within the area.

It is well known that Beijing uses the BRI to project its economic and military power across the world. Additionally, the region is crucial for Beijing’s energy security as a large number of ships carrying oil and gas pass through the Indian Ocean.

No wonder, then, that the Asian Dragon had been trying for years to co-opt Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  

Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port
– HARD LESSON: Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port

Sri Lanka, whose economy is recovering from the debilitating impact of China’s debt-trap diplomacy, which comes in the garb of BRI investments, has now realised its folly.

Colombo recently denied Beijing permission to dock ‘research vessels’ (spy ships) at its ports or operate within its exclusive economic zone for a year.The aim of the Chinese vessel was to conductdeep sea research close to Sri Lankan waters. Colombo has hosted such vessels in the past but New Delhi’s timely intervention made the island nation see through Beijing’s game plan.

A few years ago, Sri Lanka learnt its lessons the hard way in the takeover of the Hambantota Port, which was financed and built by China but later came under Beijing’s control when Colombo was unable to pay its debt.

As an alternative, India is now extending significant financial aid to Sri Lanka, and building power and port projects in the island nation to keep the strategic neighbour on its side.

India is extending significant financial aid to Sri Lanka, and building power and port projects

Sri Lanka’s refusal to the Chinese spy vessel came months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his security concerns during an interaction with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe in July 2023.

Earlier, both India and the US had expressed their concerns over Colombo hosting Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean.

Interestingly, President Wickremesinghe had visited Beijing in October 2023 for an event to mark ten years of the BRI and clearance for the Chinese vessel came in November last year.

In another part of the Indian Ocean, diplomatic tensions between India and the Maldives erupted even before new President Mohamed Muizzu, considered to be pro-China, was elected in October 2023.

During his campaign. President Muizzu promised voters that he would force New Delhi to withdraw its military staff from the island nation. He kept his word after assuming office.

Following talks with New Delhi, the two sides agreed to complete the withdrawal of 89 Indian soldiers and their support staff from the nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands by May 10, 2024.

This move triggered ‘Boycott Maldives’ calls within India and raised concerns in Malé  over a potential loss of tourism revenue. as well as goodwill among the South Asian nation’s rich and famous, who are often spotted holidaying on the serene beaches of the archipelago.

President Muizzu also violated an established diplomatic tradition by opting not to visit India on his first official trip. Instead, he chose to visit Turkey and then China.

The new president also announced that he would not extend the agreement that permitted India to conduct hydrographic surveys in collaboration with the Maldives. even as the capital Malé  hosted a Chinese research (spy) vessel off its coast in February 2024.

Since December, the India-Maldives High-level Core Group has held three meetings

As Muizzu increasingly inclines towards China and pursues a defence deal, after signing several pacts related to infrastructure, agriculture and energy with Beijing, New Delhi has got the hint and become alert.

As tensions soared in the bilateral relationship, Indian Prime Minister Modi and President Muizzu met on the sidelines of the COP-28 Summit in the UAE on December 1, 2023 and agreed to set up a special panel to diffuse the situation.

Since then, the India-Maldives High-level Core Group has held three meetings. During the interactions, both sides reviewed the ongoing deputation of Indian technical personnel to enable continued operation of New Delhi’s aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medical services to the people of the Maldives.

The two sides also agreed to set up joint monitoring mechanisms to expedite ongoing developmental projects, including a bridge and an airport, and efforts to boost trade and investment between the two countries.

The Maldives former President Mohamed Nasheed, considered to be pro-India, also rushed to New Delhi to salvage the situation.Later, Nasheed expressed concern over the ‘Boycott Maldives’ call, apologised on behalf of his people and argued that diplomacy and not confrontation was the way forward to resolve the row between the two neighbours.

Maldives President Miuzzu meeting with Indian PM Modi at COP-28 in Dec. 2023 1
EASING TENSIONS: Maldivian President Muizzu with Indian PM Modi at COP-28 in Dec. 2023

Although Nasheed played down the military deal between the Maldives and China, saying it was simply related to the purchase of some defence equipment, including rubber bullets and tear gas shells, India believes the deal involves the training of Maldivian forces by China. New Delhi also feels it may be a precursor to replacing Indian troops with Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers on the archipelago.

To counter China in the region, India has recently started work on setting up a new naval base on Minicoy, which is part of the Lakshadweep archipelago and not far from the Maldives where the presence of INS Jatayu will allow New Delhi to keep a hawk’s eye on the Chinese checkers in the Indian Ocean region.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues