In relief to India, Maldives may scrap ocean deal with China

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In relief to India, Maldives may scrap ocean deal with ChinaNEW DELHI: An agreement China signed with the Maldives to build an observatory in the Indian Ocean is likely to be scrapped, as India’s relations with its maritime neighbour enter a purple patch following the exit of former Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen. Top local government sources in Male told ToI that the agreement Yameen signed with China in 2017, which raised a security alarm in India, is “not on the table’’.

Titled Protocol on Establishment of Joint Ocean Observation Station, the agreement was meant to allow China to construct an observatory at Makunudhoo, the westernmost atoll of the Maldives in the north.

The finalisation of the agreement had set off concerns in India that it would allow China a vantage point of an important Indian Ocean shipping route through which many merchant and other ships pass. It would also be located uncomfortably close to Indian waters.

Then foreign secretary S Jaishankar, who is now foreign minister, had discussed the issue with then Maldivian envoy Ahmed Mohamed. Without sharing the specifics of the agreement, the envoy had clarified that China was only looking to build a meteorological ocean observation centre. The Yameen government never made the agreement public and following a controversy, after ToI first reported the issue on February 26 last year, Chinese authorities clarified that the observatory was not meant for any military purpose.

In India though, many saw it as yet another move to ensure India’s strategic encirclement. Retired navy officials and strategic experts saw it as an attempt to acquire accurate hydrological data for sub-surface operations including possible deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

The situation though changed dramatically after the ouster of Yameen and with a government led by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) firmly ensconced. The recent visit by PM Narendra Modi, the first full-fledged visit by an Indian PM in 8 years, saw the inauguration of a coastal surveillance radar system and also a composite training facility for the Maldivian defence forces. In a significant message to the Maldives, which is said to owe more than half of its external debt to China, Modi said during the visit that India’s developmental partnership wasn’t meant to empower others, not weaken them by increasing their dependence on India.

Former president and the most powerful MDP leader, Mohammed Nasheed, remains a staunch supporter of India and was quoted by a newspaper as having said a few days ago that the Maldives shouldn’t even try to balance relations with India and China. He also said that the Maldives can’t afford to have defence cooperation with China.