Mariya Ahmed Didi said that there had been no mention of China or Pakistan during discussions with India

New Delhi: Stating that Maldives does not require close military cooperation with other countries besides India, Maldivian defence minister Mariya Didi said that discussions with Indian counterparts focused on implementing previously stalled projects, including the development of coast guard facilities.

Didi, Maldives’ first woman defence minister is currently on an official visit to India, accompanied by the chief of Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF), Major General Abdulla Shamaal. She had held talks with Indian defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday.

The second round of the India-Maldives Defence Cooperation Dialogue also took place Thursday, and was co-chaired by Indian defence secretary Sanjay Mitra and the MNDF chief.

During the previous government’s rule, New Delhi and MalĂ© had drifted apart, with President Abdulla Yameen moving toward China despite a professed ‘India First’ policy. Incidentally, Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, had been the first foreign leader to visit Maldives last year after the Yameen government had lifted the widely-criticised state of emergency after 45 days.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, January 25, Didi said that there had been no mention of China – or Pakistan – during discussions with India.

“India respects our sovereignty, they do not talk about our relations with other countries. [As far] as we are concerned, we are very comfortable [with] having India as our very close friend because they always came to our rescue – [be it] in 1988, the 2004 Tsunami or the recent water crisis,” she said.

Maldives, she noted, wanted to keep the Indian ocean region a protected zone, “where the bigger powers don’t engage in a way that could perhaps be detrimental to the interests of our nation.”

“Our closest neighbour has been India and they have always been there to help, so there is absolutely no need to have any other sort of military cooperation with any country as such,” she added.

The chief of Maldives defence forces said that talks revolved around ways to put in “collaborative structures” in information sharing and “fusion mechanism”.

In 2016, India and Maldives had signed an Action Plan for defence cooperation. It had drawn up several joint defence projects, but their implementation had been stalled for last few years, as relationship with India deteriorated.

A top priority had been the proposal for India to “partner” with Maldives in the planned development of infrastructure for the coast guard at the atoll of Uthuru Thila Falhu. As per the Action Plan, Maldives would allow India to have access to the facilities for training, Humanitarian Assistance And Disaster Relief (HADR) and surveillance of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

MNDF chief Major General Abdulla Shamaal said that there was certainly a need to develop coast guard facilities for Maldives. “There is a need to have repairs and [construct] a pier for berthing. At the time, we are at the discussion stage,” he said.

He added that a decision would be soon made whether the construction at Uthuru Thila Falhu should go ahead or if the civil port at nearby Thilafushi island would be expanded.

The Yameen government had earlier asked New Delhi to take back two helicopters gifted to it by India. The new government of President Ibu Solih, which took over in November 2018, reversed the decision.

Mariya Didi noted that on Thursday, the helicopter was used to rescue the Mayor of Addu city, who had been lost at sea during a fishing expedition. “I don’t understand why it [flights of the Indian choppers] was stopped for a while. I don’t know how we can manage without the helicopters,” she said, adding that 160 lives have been “saved” because of them.

She also revealed that “all issues will be sorted within a few months” for the transfer of a Dornier aircraft as committed by India in the Action Plan. The installation of the coastal radar surveillance system, funded by India, would also be completed, she added.