Previous Maldives govt had asked India to take back choppers as it made overtures towards China. New government is more pro-India.
New Delhi: The Maldives is expected to retain two Indian military helicopters after the regime change that saw President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih formally sworn-in Saturday. The ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The government of previous President Yameen Abdul Gayoom had asked India to take back the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters operated by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard crew. Yameen was ousted in the September elections that he challenged. But a court struck down his challenge.
The refusal to retain the helicopters and renew the visas of the 28 Indian crew was the most tangible sign that Male was unhappy with New Delhi even as Yameen brought in millions in Chinese investment. He had also supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that India opposes.
Gifts from 2013
India had gifted the choppers to the Maldives in 2013. They were based in Gan, in the southern atoll of Addu and at Laamu in the north of the island chain.
The locations are strategically important as they stride the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) between Africa/West Asia and East Asia through which much of Chinese mercantile traffic sails.
In June this year, Male expressed a desire to return the helicopters, prompting New Delhi to suspect that Chinese influence in the archipelago was working against it.
This suspicion was strengthened by the refusal of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) in February to participate in Milan, an Indian Navy exercise hosted for neighbourhood countries. The MNDF has always participated in the drill.
India played for time, expecting that the political turmoil in the Maldives since Yameen imposed a state of emergency in February would throw up an alternative.
The navy deployed two offshore patrol vessels, the INS Nipat and the Nirbhat, ostensibly to bring the helicopters and crew back. Then it cited weather during the monsoon, buying it more time.
The turmoil in the Maldives eventually played out in the September elections with Solih now heading a coalition.
At the heart of a geopolitical tussle
Before Yameen had taken over, Maldives had an “India first” policy.
It is yet to be seen if Solih will restore that. But The Maldives Times newspaper reported that President Solih and Prime Minister Narendra Modi “discussed ways to further strengthen bilateral relations between their countries”.
This was Modi’s first visit to the Maldives since taking office in 2014, the only neighbouring country that he had not been to till now. An earlier planned visit was cancelled in 2015.
The new government, in a statement on its objectives for the first 100 days, also said it will work to strengthen existing ties that the Maldives has had with India and other regional countries.
The statements of intent, however, do not necessarily mean that the new administration is rolling back the pro-China policies of the Yameen government. China has large stakes in the Maldives that are not only strategic but also economic. It sends the largest number of tourists to the archipelago and is involved in infrastructure projects. The Maldives is reported to have run up a debt of about $1.5 billion with China.