At a time when relations between India and the Maldives are clearly in a free fall, Male has asked the Indian government to take back one of the two naval helicopters New Delhi had gifted to the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Official sources said they were still discussing with the Abdulla Yameengovernment what the real issue was but a top Maldives government source told TOI that Male wanted a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft instead of the “Dhruv” Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) which India had given to Male. The chopper which Maldives wants India to take back operates from Addu atoll.
The development is certain to further strain India’s relations with the Maldives and will also raise questions on India’s defence and security cooperation with Male at atime when China is making deep inroads into the strategically located country with its connectivity and other infrastructure projects.
Moreover, Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Maldives on Sunday, becoming the first foreign dignitary to visit the 1,190-island archipelago after the 45-day Emergency was lifted there last month. “We are closely watching the situation,” said an Indian government source.
Seeking to justify the decision, sources in the Yameen government also said that the Letter of Exchange (LoE) for the ALH at Addu had expired. The LoE though is renewed every two years and this is for the first time that Male has chosen to not renew it. Among other things, the stay of Indian personnel in the Maldives is also facilitated by the LoE.
Male is said to be also considering asking India to remove the other Indian ALH too which operates from the Laamu atoll. Sources in Yameen government, however, denied that any decision had been taken on the Laamu atoll chopper.
Laamu in southern Maldives is a sensitive location as that’s where China is said to be considering building a port. Recent evacuation of inhabitants from the Gaadhoo island there, and Chinese presence in the region, has again raised questions about the intentions of the Yameen government.
India, with an eye firmly on China, has invested heavily in Maldives in providing military aid, training and “capacity-building” over the last several years. Apart from gifting a fast-attack craft, India has stationed six pilots and over a dozen ground personnel to operate the ALHs and help the Maldivian National Defence Forces.
An Indian Navy Dornier maritime reconnaissance aircraft and a warship alternatively also make a weekly sortie to the Maldives to patrol its exclusive economic zone under a long-standing bilateral agreement.
India is also helping Maldives in setting up 10 coastal surveillance radar system (CSRS) stations, each with navigation radars, electrooptic sensors and AIS (automatic identification system) transponders. India has helped set up similar CSRS stations in Seychelles and Mauritius, among other countries in the IOR.