After President Yameen Abdul Gayyoom’s electoral defeat, the MDP administration had famously declared that they would pursue an “India First” policy.
The intent was to propitiate the northern neighbour and establish that India’s interests would always take precedence over the interests of any other nation.
However, of late, it would appear that Maldivian national interests are not exempt.
Throughout the Yameen years, India (and the politicians they had funded) had nervously believed that their rival China was drawing together a “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean.
Despite the lack of any evidence, the Indian military believed that Chinese submarines were active in the Indian Ocean and that Chinese military bases had popped up in Myanmar.
India’s fears are based on growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. The Belt and Road initiative, as well as its military base in Djibouti and its port in Gwadar.
The current Majlis Speaker, MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed, had claimed that the Chinese were building a military base in Laamu Atoll.
The Maldives is not unique in the Indian Ocean with regards to the close attention given to it by India.
India seeks to dominate the Indian Ocean. Manmohan Singh, in 2004 had said that "our strategic footprint [extends] to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. Awareness of this reality should inform and animate our strategic thinking and defense planning"
The Indian Maritime Doctrine published in 2004 and 2009, and the Indian Maritime Military Strategy published in 2007 depict the Indian navy as a large, ocean-going, active blue-water fleet capable of power projection throughout the Indian Ocean.
Indian military spending has therefore risen. In 1999 - 2000, India spent 14.5% of its defense budget on the navy. A decade later, this has reached 19%.
India’s nervousness over its place in the Indian Ocean has been provoked by China’s rise, and it has made many approaches at gaining dominance of its smaller neighbours.
Oman, Indonesia, Seychelles, Mauritius—and of course, the Maldives.
The MDP administration, however, has no qualms of military presence as long as it’s Indian.
Government officials and government-funded media have often praised the aspiring superpower, and have characterized its actions in the Maldives as neighborly benevolence. Often in spite of common sense.
The Government is Hiding Many Things in Mauritius
The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited Mauritius in 2015. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to "improve sea and air transport facilities" on the Mauritian archipelago of Agaléga. These facilities would include state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment.
The memorandum promised that India would extend a runway and build port facilities, allowing both countries to land larger aircraft.
What's in this for India?
Mauritius has had long and close security ties with the aspiring superpower to the point that Modi has come to refer to Mauritius as "little India". The Agaléga islands, situated between the Maldivian archipelago and the western coast of Africa, would grant New Delhi "greater maritime awareness" in the south-west Indian Ocean.
An Indian company, Afcons, had won the $87 million USD project to develop the facilities. It is worth noting that Afcons had also won an infrastructural project in the Maldives, earlier in the year.
The Mauritian government had behaved much like the Maldivian government did with regards to Uthuru Thila Falhu. Inhabitants of the Agalégan islands expressed concerned, and they feared that the islands may be "ceded to India".
Speaking to the Financial Times, Agalégan resident Arnaud Poulay had said “I and all the people of Agaléga are worried about this project because the Mauritian government is hiding many things. We are against a military base on Agaléga."
Satellite imagery from December 2020 shows the extent to which the Agalégan base has been developed. The governments of both India and Mauritius have kept the details of the facilities being developed on Agaléga a secret.
The 3,000 meter-runway on the island can be clearly seen in satellite imagery taken from Google Earth.
Analysts at the Lowy Institute stated that this runway would possibly be used for India's Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft. "The imagery shows what looks like barracks and fields which could be used as parade grounds or sporting facilities located near the north end of the runway."
It is assumed that the facilities would provide an important staging point for India's P-81 fleet, as evidenced from India's recent joint-patrol of the south-west Indian Ocean with France. Analysts say that "the staging point will also allow the Indian Navy to observe shipping routes around southern Africa, which now account for a significant portion of China’s energy imports".
The Deal is Dead in Seychelles, Or Is It?
The Indian Minister of External Affairs, Dr. Subramanyam Jaishankar, visited Seychelles in late November 2020, as part of New Delhi's renewed efforts at improving ties between India and Seychelles. Dr Jaishankar had said that Seychelles was "central" to Prime Minister Modi's 2016 vision for the Indian Ocean that had been titled 'Security and Growth for All in the Region' (SAGAR).
Some years ago when in 2015 India had approached Seychelles with a deal similar to that of Mauritius.
In the same year as when the agreement had been made with Mauritius, India and Seychelles signed an agreement to jointly develop facilities on Assumption Island to be used by both countries. Assumption Island is situated some 1,100 km southwest of Seychelles’ main island of Mahé. The proposed development was aimed at helping Seychelles’ Coast Guard to patrol the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) against piracy, illegal fishing, and drug-trafficking amongst others.
This had lead to another accord, that had been negotiated in secret, that had been agreed upon in January 2018. The terms stated that India would build a 2.4kilometer airstrip and a new jetty on Assumption for the Indian Navy, and that the agreement would stay in force for the next 20 years.
Seychelles, generally non-aligned to foreign powers, were concerned that the country would be sucked into a struggle between superpowers. Barry Faure, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs at the time, had tried to assuage the public by presenting the proposed base as one "jointly controlled" by Seychelles and subject to Seychellois law. The government had also guaranteed that Seychelles could suspend the Indian use of the facilities if India was at war as the facilities were "not a military base".
However, several Indian military officers involved in the negotiations had been very outspoken about Assumption Island's strategic benefit for the Indian Navy. Capt. Gupreet Khurana had publicly said that the proposed project was "a clear indicator that India's geo-strategic frontier is expanding in tandem with China's growing strategic footprint in the Indo-Pacific".
The opposition in the Seychellois National Assembly had refused to ratify the agreement, citing concerns about national sovereignty. Wavel Ramkalawan, the then-opposition leader, had said that "This is the end of the Assumption agreement and I don't expect to see it on any agenda between [the President] and the opposition".
The Seychellois opposition's stand against the government had been a historic first in the country's history.
After the Assumption deal was struck dead in the National Assembly, Seychellois President Danny Faure visited India in June 2018. Modi received him by offering the Seychelles a $100 million USD line-of-credit. The Police Headquarters would be rebuilt, and a new office would be provided for the Attorney General.
Political scientist Jean-Pierre Cabestan believes that the new President Wavel Ramkalawan, whose party had struck down the Assumption agreement when he was leader of the opposition, would be asked by India to reconsider parts of India's plans for Assumption. Modi's decision to appoint a former Army Chief as the Indian High Commissioner in the Seychelles "adds evidence to the belief that India has a growing interest in this archipelago". Cabestan notes that High Commissioner Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag "tends to downplay [India]'s strategic interests in the Assumption project and presents it as India's response to Seychelles' request".
The Maldives and Indian Neighborliness
The evolving geopolitical landscape that is emerging from the rivalry between India and China will put increasing pressure on small island nations such as the Maldives. India's history with Mauritius and Seychelles gives us a clear picture of India's intentions for the Maldives.
While the best way to navigate such a complicated situation should be the subject of well-intentioned and dispassionate thought, the current government's childish pride in implementing an "India-First" foreign policy does a great disservice to the Maldives and its own potential.
Maldivians on social media have responded with anger. The hashtag #IndiaOut has surged prior to the recent leaking of the Uthuru Thila Falhu agreement. The government, and pro-government activists, as well as pro-Indian activists, have tried to either distort valid concerns into a movement motivated by an insidious political agenda, or by pro-Chinese sentiments, or anti-Indian xenophobia: all the while ignoring the core issue of how such overdependence on an aspiring regional superpower puts Maldivian sovereignty in grave jeopardy.
There are currently several Indian military personnel present in the Maldives, yet the Maldivian Ministry of Defence has adamantly refused to declare their number. Likewise, no details of any of the military agreements made between both the Maldives and India have been disclosed, neither to the Parliament nor to the public, citing a variety of supposed concerns.