Nothing seems to be going right for India in the Maldives. On Tuesday, The Times of India reported that the Maldivian government has asked India to take back its second Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) from Laamu Atoll.
In April, the Maldives had reportedly told India to take back its other Dhruv helicopter, which was stationed in Addu Atoll.
A small number of Indian Navy pilots and ground crew were deployed in the Maldives to operate the two helicopters, which were supposed to be used to patrol Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The Letter of Exchange for the second helicopter expired in May, according to The Times of India, and ‘Male has not just officially refused to renew it but also asked India to complete the process of removal of both Indian choppers by June end.’
The Times of India also cited ‘reports from Male’ that the government of President Abdulla Yameen was ‘upset about the presence of Indian navy staff’.
News about the helicopters comes just one day after the Maldives issued a $20.5 million tax notice on GMR Male International Airport Limited, a consortium setup by the GMR Group to revamp Male airport. The Maldives government had suddenly cancelled GMR’s airport contract in November 2012, later handing the project to a Chinese company. GMR sought international arbitration and won a compensation of $271 million, which some in India suspect was paid up by China.
‘Make no mistake. The Yameen regime is sticking it to India,’ Nitin Pai, director of The Takshashila Institution tweeted. ‘They’re deliberately signaling that they can poke India and there’s nothing New Delhi can do about it.’
It’s worth noting that Yameen’s government has reached out to India in modest ways. The head of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) Ahmed Shiyam met an Indian lieutenant general at Kuala Lumpur’s Defence Services Asia exhibition in April. And in May, an Indian Saryu class patrol vessel, INS Sumedha, joined Maldivian forces to patrol the country’s sprawling EEZ, while 10 members of India’s Marine Commandos (MARCOS) conducted a training exercise with MNDF personnel.
But these pale in comparison to Yameen’s other actions, from inviting PLA Navy ships last August, to signing a wide-ranging FTA with Beijing, to passing a China-friendly law that would allow Chinese to own whole islands.
Yameen has also stepped up repression at home, damaged institutions, and made his peace with religious extremists. Few expect the upcoming September presidential elections will be free and fair.
For China, the Maldives is a key state in its strategy of creating a Beijing-friendly political environment in the Indian Ocean region. For India, the situation in the Maldives is a serious challenge- one that presents few good options.
Last month, navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba conceded that the ‘ present government in Maldives is more inclined towards China.’ A few days later, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj insisted that ties with the Maldives are ‘not broken and cannot be broken’. She had, however, little evidence to back up her claim.
Even as it expands its naval reach in the region- most recently with the Sabang port agreement and a memorandum of understanding with Singapore on logistics support– India is losing ground in its own backyard.