India-Maldives ties: Decoding robustness of defence cooperation between Delhi and Male
Owing to its crucial location in the Indian Ocean, Maldives’ significance is strategically very high despite being the smallest country in South Asia
Maldives has always figured prominently in India’s regional policy and more so, under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Maldives' strategic relevance for India is explained by its close proximity to the West coast of the country (it is only 300 nautical miles away from India's west coast and only 70 nautical miles from the Minicoy Island).
After Maldives gained independence in 1965, India was one of the first countries to recognise it and establish diplomatic ties. After Delhi’s assistance during the coup attempt in 1988 the two countries developed strong, long-lasting bilateral relations. Since then, the two countries have collaborated extensively in the fields of security and defence, catering extensively to Maldives’ defence training and equipment requirements.
For the Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF), India offers the most training possibilities, covering over 70% of their needs in this arena. Over the past 10 years, India has trained more than 1400 MNDF trainees. Additionally, the MNDF has been taking part in a variety of military-to-military activities such as combined EEZ patrols, anti-narcotics operations, SAR, the sea-rider programme, HADR drills, adventure camps and sailing competitions. India has also offered to train MNDF soldiers for UN peacekeeping operations at CUNPK and to dispatch Mobile Training Teams (MTT) contingent on the MNDF requirements.
It is worth mentioning that in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021, the Indian Navy deployed the 10-member Commando MTT to the Maldives. In addition, it provided the MNDF with air assets for air surveillance, MEDEVAC, SAR, and helicopter-borne vertical insertion capability.
The MNDF often takes part in drills organised by India for search and rescue (SAR), humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief.
Joint exercises such as ‘Ekuverin’, ‘Dosti’, ‘Ekatha’ and “Operation Shield” have been an important part of the bilateral defence cooperation framework. Other noteworthy defence initiatives include development of a new Ministry of Defence Headquarters, MNDF's Composite Training Center (CTC) and the Coastal Radar System (CRS). The MNDF also continues to take part in a number of forums, including IONS, the Goa Symposium, and the Goa Maritime Conclave. Besides such arrangements, the two countries have also been investing in institutional mechanisms.
In April 2016, during former President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s two-day official visit to India, a comprehensive Action Plan for Defence was inked to further bilateral defence cooperation. The Annual Defence Cooperation Dialogue, which is held at the level of the Defense Secretary, was started in July 2016 and convened for the second time in November 2017. The third edition of the dialogue was conducted in Male on February 14, 2022, following a temporary break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Annual Joint Staff Talks (JST) were initiated in February 2016 to boost defence cooperation at the strategic and operational levels and in December 2022, Delhi hosted the sixth edition of the talks. Additionally, Maldives relies on trilateral maritime security cooperation with India and Sri Lanka to attain this goal. The protection of the Maldives' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been a vital component of its national security due to the country's reliance on the ocean's bounty for exports and domestic food security (especially fish and allied items), and India’s assistance to this end has been notable.
India is seen as a reliable ally of Maldives where ‘India First’ has been a stated policy of the Government of Maldives (GoM), most recently reaffirmed by President Solih during his visit to New Delhi in August 2022. India announced providing a landing craft assault (LCA) to the MNDF, and another warship to replace CGS Huravee, a naval patrol vessel gifted by India in 2006. India also announced providing 24 utility vehicles to the MNDF during the Maldivian President’s visit last year on August 02.
However, the relationship has had its ups and downs, depending on the ruling party or coalition in power in Malé. This became evident between 2013 and 2018, when the bilateral relations deteriorated under Progressive Party of the Maldives and its ruling coalition led by Abdul Gayoom (currently the country's opposition force).
During this period, China made inroads into the island nation. Beijing and Malé signed agreements for significant infrastructure projects on the islands and a free trade pact was also approved by the government in 2017. Despite supporting the anti-India rhetoric, the opposition groups in Maldives have been well aware of Delhi’s significance in the country's strategic calculus. Their ironical love-hate stance towards India is testified by the fact that Gayoom’s regime inked the comprehensive defence action plan with India in April 2016, and later became the face of opposition's "India Out" campaign.
Thus, Maldives' official ‘India First’ policy is not likely to change regardless of which political party comes to power. The phase of dull diplomacy under Yameen Gayoom was short-lived and ended with the election of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as Maldivian President in November 2018.
His first official state visit after taking office in December 2018, was India. In January 2019, a delegation led by Defence Minister Mariya Didi visited India for the second defence cooperation dialogue. Since then, she has made multiple trips to India, including DEFEXPO in February 2020, IOR DM's conference in Bangalore in February 2021, and in Kochi as Chief Guest during Passing Out Parade (POP) in November 2021.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to Maldives in June 2019 (his first trip abroad during his second term), the Indian Navy and the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) signed a technical agreement on the exchange of white shipping information. By use of remote links, the MNDF's Composite Training Center (CTC) facility in Maafilafushi and Coastal Radar System (CRS) was jointly inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi and President Solih. Additionally, both sides agreed to constitute a Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism and resume the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), an NSA-level trilateral talks (India‐Maldives‐Sri Lanka) on marine security.
In nutshell, bilateral ties and defence cooperation between Indian and Maldives have enhanced in the recent past. It received a further boost during the just concluded visit of India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar who handed over two sea ambulances to the MNDF to enable it to rapidly deploy health services for people in need in the island nation.
***Author is a PhD scholar from JNU’s School of International Studies; views expressed are her own