Few geographies are witnessing the intense game of strategic one-upmanship between giant neighbours India and China in the archipelago of Maldives.
With a favourably-disposed government led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in power in Male, India stepped up its military-diplomatic outreach by handing over two indigenously-made ships—a fast patrol vessel ‘Huravee’ and a landing craft assault ship—to the Maldives on Tuesday.
The ships were handed over by Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh who is on a three-day official day visit—from May 1-3—to the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF) on Tuesday.
Singh and his Maldivian counterpart Mariya Didi also laid the foundation stone for the MNDF Coast Guard ‘Ekatha Harbour’. The development of the Coastguard Harbour and repair facility at Sifavaru is one of the biggest grant-in-aid projects of India in the archipelago.
A joint press communique issued by the two sides said both sides agreed to enhance and deepen cooperation in the defence and security domains.
During his meeting with Singh, President Solih applauded “the significant progress achieved in the hydrography surveys being conducted with assistance from India” as well as in providing the equipment to undertake the study.
Already, two Dhruv Advanced Light helicopters, a Dornier aircraft and several Indian ships are in operation in the Maldives.
But public interest in the Maldives is focused on the Indian help in developing the harbour in Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF for short) which many say has strong military implications.
India is believed to be helping Maldives in developing the UTF base—comprising a coastguard harbour and dockyard—in a strategically located atoll just northwest of the capital Male.
President Solih leads the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) which swept to power in April 2019.
The main opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), led by former president Abdulla Yameen, accuses Solih of adopting a pro-Indian position, while Yameen stands accused of catering to China’s interests.
Several infrastructure projects were inked with China including acceding to China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) when Yameen was in power.
In 2021, India edged out China by grabbing a key 6.7 km bridge-and-causeway link connectivity project that will connect Male with the three neighbouring islands of Villingili, Gulhifahu and Thilafushi. This is the biggest-ever infrastructure project in the Maldives and dwarfs the 1.39 km Maldives-China Friendship bridge connecting Malé with Hulhule and Hulhumale to its east.
In recent years, the Indian Ocean region has become the hotbed of activity by Chinese ships in the backdrop of the rapid development and modernization of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in terms of the numbers of ships and submarines.