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Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi. File   | Photo Credit: AP

India welcomes U.S.-Maldives defence agreement

Changed stance indicates growing closeness with Washington

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In a sign of the growing maritime closeness between New Delhi and Washington, New Delhi has welcomed the Maldives government’s decision to sign a military agreement with the U.S., the first that Male has signed with any country other than India. In the past, New Delhi had objected to both the U.S. and China extending their strategic footprint in this part of the Indian ocean, considered India’s “sphere of influence”.

“The Agreement talks of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean and promoting a rules-based order that promotes stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. The broad areas of cooperation envisioned and the explicit endorsement of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region are in line with India’s overall interests and regional stability,” government sources told The Hindu.

Surprise announcement

The “Framework for a Defence and Security Relationship” between the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) and the Maldives Ministry of Defence signed in Philadelphia on September 10, was a surprise announcement made while the Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi was in the U.S. on a private trip.

According to a U.S. DoD press statement, the Framework, signed by Ms. Didi and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia Reed Werner, outlines their “intent to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean”.

“Both sides reiterated their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes the security and prosperity of all nations in the region,” it added.

A senior Indian official told The Hindu that the Indian Embassy in Male had been kept briefed about the negotiations, and had been shown a copy of the two-page document signed. While details of the Framework agreement have not yet been released, it is understood that it involves basic cooperation between the U.S. and Maldivian navies, and mandates that the two sides to schedule their first Defence and Security Dialogue mechanism talks.

No change in role

Neither of those objectives, said the official, in any way impinge on India’s role as a “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean, and are actually “complementary” to India’s plans for the Indo-Pacific.

“It is significant that the Maldives has taken a strategic position, and signed this agreement with the U.S. and not with China, despite the fact that it is part of BRI (Belt and Road Initiative),” the official added, indicating that the decision could be a blow for China’s infrastructure projects in the Maldives as well.

The government’s position is in contrast to earlier objections, including to plans by former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed to sign a Statement of Forces Agreement (SoFA) with the U.S. in 2013, after which the Maldives decided not to go through with it. India had also sharply objected when the previous Maldives government of Abdulla Yameen accepted a Chinese naval warship contingent into Male harbour for the first time, on a “goodwill visit” in 2017.

However, under the present government of President Ibrahim Solih, ties between New Delhi and Male have been extremely close, and officials said they were confident the pact with the U.S. would in no way harm India’s position in the islands. Last year, the Solih government had also scrapped an agreement with China that had been signed by the Yameen government, to develop a “Joint Ocean Observation Station” on its western-most island of Makunudhoo.

“Ours (India-Maldives) is a grassroots relationship,” said the official quoted earlier, referring to India’s exclusive naval security presence in the Indian ocean around the Maldives archipelago for decades where it conducts joint EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) surveillance patrols with Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.

In 2013, India gifted the Maldives two ALH helicopters, and provides Indian officers for operation and maintenance to them. India also has two coastal radar stations, and is working on a third. Both sides are working on a proposal for the lease of Dornier aircraft at present. In recent months, India had sent a 14-member Army medical team to set up a COVID-testing laboratory there.

(with inputs from Dinakar Peri)