In the latest snub to New Delhi by the China-backed government of President Abdullah Yameen in Maldives, the government wants India to take back military helicopters and personnel posted on the island.
Though India has been providing the Indian Ocean island with military and civilian aid for decades, Beijing which has slowly increased its presence in Maldives is upstaging India. Beijing is building roads, bridges and a bigger airport.
President Yameen's crackdown on political rivals and the imposition of emergency this year had met with opposition from India. Yameen's rivals had called on New Delhi to intervene with military support.
India has been demanding that Yameen free political rivals including former President Abdul Gayoom and Supreme Court justices. It also criticised Yameen's decision to hold elections in September saying the rule of law should be restored before embarking on such an exercise. India was a close supporter of Gayoom during his long years of stewardship of the island chain and sent troops to foil an attempted coup against him in 1988.
Reuters reported that the Maldives' ambassador in India, Ahmed Mohamed, said that two military helicopters provided by India were mainly used for medical evacuations but were no longer required as the islands had built up enough resources of its own. "They were very useful in the past but with the development of adequate infrastructure, facilities and resources we are now in a position to handle medical evacuations on our own," he said. However, India and the Maldives are still conducting joint patrols in the islands' exclusive economic zone every month, Mohamed said. Maldives is situated close to the world's busiest shipping lanes, between China and Middle East.
China, which opened an embassy in the Maldives in 2011, has rapidly built ties with the tropical island chain as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. It says it is opposed to any country interfering in the internal affairs of the Maldives.
Providing helicopters and patrol boats and satellite assistance to countries such as the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles has been part of India's naval diplomacy to retain influence in the Indian Ocean. But in recent years China has moved in, building ports and roads backed by loans. In the Maldives, Beijing Urban Construction Group Company Limited took over a project to expand the airport servicing the capital Male, after the government cancelled a $511 million deal with India's GMR Infrastructure.
Around 50 military personnel, including pilots and maintenance crew, are stationed at Maldives, along with two helicopters. Though their visas have expired, India has not withdrawn them.