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The cold vibes from Male for New Delhi signals a rollback of the country’s ‘India-first’ policy and coincides with a growing warmth in ties with Beijing.

New Delhi: India is set to order the return of its two-helicopter detachment stationed at strategic islands in the Maldives since 2013.

The government of the Indian Ocean archipelago, headed by President Abdulla Yameen, refused India’s offers to extend the period of deployment earlier this year, signalling a rollback of the country’s ‘India-first’ policy.

The two helicopters — stationed at the Gan airfield in Addu, the Maldives’ southern-most island, and at Laamu, on the northern tip — are operated by the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG). The detachment totals 25 crew members, including 12 pilots, six each from the Navy and the ICG.

“We expect the crew and the helicopters to be back in about 10 days,” a source in the government told The Print. “However, our EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) patrols will continue,” said an official.

The EEZ patrols are surveillance, reconnaissance, search-and-rescue missions flown by the Indian Navy from India with its Dornier and P8i aircraft. An Indian Navy frigate also sails in the waters around the Maldives every other month.

The forced recall of the helicopter detachment follows a rash of agreements that the Maldives entered into with China in December last year. Among the agreements are port projects that could involve the islands where the Indian helicopters are based.

The Maldives, under President Yameen, supports China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ plan, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which India opposes.

The return of the helicopters could be the first tangible sign of India’s waning influence in the Indian Ocean Region, with one of its closest neighbours — and one who was seen as a dependent — winding down the intimacy.

A question mark now also hangs on a Fast Attack Craft, a patrol boat, India gifted to the Maldives. But it is understood that, unlike the helicopters that were flown and maintained by Indian crew and technicians, the boat is manned by a crew of the Maldivian defence forces.

The Maldives signalled its intention to go colder on military-to-military relations with India as early as February this year, when it refused an invitation from the Navy to participate in its bi-annual ‘Milan’ exercise in Port Blair.

‘Milan’, held every second year, brings together navies of countries along the Indian Ocean rim that India considers friendly. The Maldives cited “current circumstances of a state of emergency being in effect” as the reason to reject the Indian Navy invite.

Yameen imposed a 45-day emergency in Maldives earlier this year, citing coup fears after the country’s supreme court ordered the reinstallation of parliamentarians from his party who had defected to the opposition and quashed the conviction of nine political rivals, including the exiled Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president.

The cold vibes from the Maldives, going colder still for India, are indirectly proportional to the warmth the Yameen’s administration is enjoying with China.

At the press conference in February where Indian Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba confirmed that the Maldives will not be participating in ‘Milan’, he also said: “China has been aggressive in the Indian Ocean. At any given time they have eight to 10 warships in the region.”

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