New Delhi says that Indian military ‘platforms’ in the Maldives must remain “operational”. Both the nations have formed a “core group” to look into Male’s demand to end Indian military presence.

There are clear "divergences" between India and the new Maldivian government led by Mohamed Muizzu regarding its demand for the withdrawal of Indian military personnel, an Indian Navy veteran told Sputnik India.

Commodore Seshadri Vasan (Retd), a former regional commander at Indian Coast Guard, has stated that it won’t be an easy process for either New Delhi or Male to end Indian military presence on the Indian Ocean island after decades of presence.

“In terms of divergences, I believe that they exist in terms of modalities. If the Indian platforms continue to be there in the Maldives, what must be considered is who would operate them and if those personnel are adequately trained to handle these platforms,” explained Vasan, the Director-General of Indian think tank Chennai Centre for Chinese Studies (C3S).

The Muizzu administration revealed last month that there are nearly 77 Indian military personnel in the Maldives. Almost all of them are involved in operating the Dornier aircraft and the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) gifted by India to the previous government.

“Alternatively, if these platforms are withdrawn, the question arises who would be the net security provider for the Maldives and take up the role that India has been fulfilling for decades,” Vasan reckoned.

He added that New Delhi would have to strategically respond to both the scenarios.

Vasan suggested that the formation of the “core group”, announced after the last week’s meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Muizzu in Dubai, indicated that the “modalities” on the way forward were being worked out.

“Besides the security threats such as those from terrorists, there are a host of non-traditional maritime security threats which must be factored in, including natural disasters and transnational crimes.

How Has Indian Military Presence in the Maldives Benefited Both Nations?

Vasan recalled that Indian military has more or less maintained a presence in the Maldives since 1988, when Indian paratroopers landed on the island nation after a coup attempt by Tamil insurgents in Sri Lanka.

“We have been the first responders to any crisis in the Maldives and the broader Indian Ocean Region (IOR), including in the Maldives,” the Indian Navy veteran said.

India trains nearly 70 percent of the Maldivian National Defence Forces (MNDF) personnel

India has also played an instrumental role in ramping up MNDF’s air assets, air and maritime surveillance capabilities and regularly carries out bilateral and multilateral military drills with Male to combat traditional and non-traditional security threats in the Indian Ocean.

Explaining the implications of Muizzu’s stance for India, Vasan noted that it was entirely within Maldives’ “sovereign right” to choose its security and development partners.

“However, the stance adopted by the Muizzu administration does have implications for the big picture in Indian Ocean geopolitics. The big picture is that India has been at the centre of promoting a Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) programme in the Indian Ocean,” he cautioned.

He said that India’s MDA programme comprised coastal radar stations and surveillance posts at the outer periphery of Madagascar to nearer ones.

“This programme has been important to prevent incidents like 26/11 terror attacks from happening again,” Vasan stated, referring to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai wherin terrorists from Pakistan landed on India’s western coast in what is deemed as a security failure.

“Until you have a complete awareness of the maritime environment around you, you won't be able to come up with an appropriate response to both traditional and non-traditional security threats,” Vasan said.

Indian Troops On Island Help Maldives Forces Respond To Multiple Threats

From the perspective of the Maldives, Vasan noted that the Dhruv choppers and Dornier have been fulfilling functions such as transportation of critically-ill patients between different Maldivian islands as well as to India.

He said that these Indian platforms have also been deployed by Maldives to respond to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, including natural disasters, oil spills and other non-traditional security threats.

Diplomatic Battle For Maldives?

Vasan noted that the Muizzu administration is being widely viewed as “pro-China”, as compared to the previous President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih who espoused an ‘India First Policy’.

India, a resident power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), has found itself increasingly challenged by China’s growing influence across south Asia. In fact, all of India’s neighbours have signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in recent years and have Beijing among their biggest trading partners.

Indian Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar told a press conference last week that New Delhi monitors the maritime activities of all the other navies venturing in the region.

While Beijing also ranks among New Delhi’s top two trading partners, India has refused to sign on to the BRI.

The bilateral relationship between the two Asian powerhouses has taken a hit in the wake of the border dispute in eastern Ladakh in April-May 2020. The border dispute still remains unresolved, though considerable progress has been made in disengaging troops and de-escalating the situation at several friction points.

Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar has warned on several occasions that the border tensions have impacted the overall Sino-India relationship.