Maldives: Need to secure Indian Ocean with India’s lead

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N Sathiya Moorthy 22 January 2020

The week-end Colombo meeting India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit K Doval, had with Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa should be of as much interest to common neighbour Maldives, if not more, compared to the other two. This is particularly so in the aftermath of the recent Maldivian acknowledgement of the existence of Al-Qaeda and IS affiliates (not ‘modules’) in the country. A larger, structural and institutional arrangement, however, will require the incumbent Government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih to work towards building up a ‘national consensus’. India seemingly has one through years and decades, so too Sri Lanka, though in the latter case, a policy-breach is often visible.

A decade or so ago, the then Maldivian MDP government of then President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed and Sri Lanka’s post-war counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa were reportedly in agreement over out-sourcing their ‘external security’ cover. Sri Lanka, at the NSA-level meetings, was represented by then Defence Secretary Gota Rajapaksa, now the President. The two island-nations identified India for their ‘external security cover’. Their reasoning was simple and logical. The two of them did not have the resources to secure the open seas around them, and themselves from those open seas.

India is the largest nation in the region, with its own security concerns and compulsions, which coincided with those of the two in broad terms. All three wanted the Indian Ocean secure. Maldives and Sri Lanka were also convinced that in ‘out-sourcing’ their ‘external security’ to a third nation – if ‘out-sourcing’ is the term – they should not complicate matters than in the natural course by inviting and involving ‘extra-regional powers’. India became the natural choice, and there followed tri-nation consultations at the NSA levels, where meetings were held in all three national capitals.

The process died a natural death after the Rajapaksa regime permitted China to berth its submarine in its port. Leave aside the fact, India, the most concerne4d party in the matter was not taken into confidence, the Chinese reason for the sub’s presence in the Indian Ocean waters was even more unconvincing. At least there was no precedent in any nation deploying subs to neutralise ‘prates’, this one of the Yemeni kind as Beijing has claimed. This was followed years later by incumbent Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen asking India to take back the two helicopters, given as a gift, for air-borne surveillance of the nation’s seas. Between these, the reported Maldivian offer to host a tri-nation command, too, quietly fell through, though it may have been too early, even otherwise.

Denial mode

In general, national security can be classified as ‘internal’ and ‘external’. Traditional security concerns, and non-traditional issues like human security, cyber security, et al, are only about listing out and detailing the two. For all practical purposes, Maldives does not have ‘external security’ concerns of the traditional kind. It never has had throughout history, barring a bad patch in the 15th century, when the Portuguese tried to colonise the archipelago-nation and were repulsed.

The nation’s contemporary concerns are only about ‘internal security’ matters.  Maldives does not have to fear neighbours like India and Sri Lanka coveting the nation’s territory. In geo-strategic terms, extra-regional powers may be on a ‘denial mode’, if only to ensure that other powers do not get a geo-political foothold in Maldives, even if they themselves do not get any.

The nation(s) do(es) not have the clout and power to offset pressures from competing extra-regional powers. They can logically fend off pressures from another regional power in Pakistan, with its historic adversity towards India, by flagging the common Indian Ocean geo-strategic space between them India. Pakistan stands excluded from such an Indian Ocean neighbourhood security cooperation format.

Over-lapping nature

Given the overlapping nature of physical security in our times, Maldives also cannot differentiate internal and external security, to ‘outsource’ them to separate State entities. Worse still, Maldives, and also Sri Lanka, cannot ‘out-source’ their two arms of national security to two different nations, as India could out-source its defence procurement (as different from ‘national security’).

Though Sri Lankan violation of a consensus of the nature when the Rajapaksas permitted Chinese sub docking at Colombo port, the consnsus thread is still strong and continual from a proven internal perception. India’s politics too is similarly polarised but there seems to be broad agreement on issues of national interest, especially foreign policy and security issues. In details however there are occasional changes, which at times could well lead to the consensus policy going for a toss.

In Maldives, the Yameen government’s behaviour of asking India to take back the gifted choppers, owing to its unhappiness with New Delhi’s stress on restoring democracy and civil and political rights in Maldives, now demands the need for a national consensus on ‘security matters’. In context, Solih Government has greater political reach and constitutional credibility than the preceding two in  a ‘democratised’ Maldives for working towards a consensus on major policy initiatives, starting with national security and can include economy and the rest, where diverse views and positions now exist.

How such a national consensus can be arrived at, what can at all be the markets and content is for Maldivian polity and security establishment to decide. It should also be incumbent upon the ruling party of the time, starting at least with this one, that the chosen mechanism ensures that a successor regime could upturn national interest at will and whim. The incumbent too should be aware of and alive to the possibility of the nation choosing another party and/or leader over the short, medium or long-term, and such a course cannot be wished away, now or ever.

‘Net provider’

Making the Indian point clear and taking off from where predecessor Manmohan Singh from a rival political party had left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commenced his Indian Ocean visits by combining Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka in a single leg. Maldives was a fourth nation PM Modi was scheduled to visit as a part of his four-nation Indian Ocean trip in March 2015, but owing to the tense domestic situation leading up to a local court ordering President Nasheed to 13 years in prison, it could not happen then. It happened when Modi became the only foreign dignitary for President Solih’s inauguration in November 2018.

Before Modi, PM Singh had declared that India would be the ‘net provider’ of security in the region. Translated, it meant India was open to ensuring the external – and internal – security of nations of the region (excluding, of course, traditional adversary Pakistan). It also implied that New Delhi would not countenance third-nation interference, including extra-regional muscle-flexing, in South Asian waters.

India has since expanded and re-worked its sea-centric neighbourhood priorities by bringing Madagascar, Comoros and French Reunion Island under the ‘Indian Ocean Division’ (IOR), which was a creation of the Manmohan Singh years. At the time, the MEA created the IOR Division by separating Bangladesh and Myanmar, from what was originally the ‘BSM’, and including Mauritius and Seychelles to Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The new nations in the Division, starting with Mauritius and Seychelles, were a part of the Africa division in the MEA. The current change-over means that India is not just looking at geographies any more also the existing realities, which need greater coordination and cooperation with the Indian Ocean neighbourhood nations of the region, as a whole.

Sphere of influence

Taking the sea-based State-centric threats of a possible Chinese kind seriously, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has expanded its activities in recent times, moving further from the creation of the Southern Air Command at Thiruvananthapuram, followed by air bases in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, both closer to the shared waters with its neighbours. The IAF is now set to resurrect the ’222 Tigersharks’ squadron, and position Russian-made Su-30 Sukhoi fighter, which can deliver Russo-Indian BrahMos missiles over a 350-km radius.

All this means that the Indian strategic community and Government agencies, starting with the Foreign Office and the Defence Ministry, toon would be looking at the Indian Ocean, from Madagascar to Sri Lanka and Maldives, to which India is the closest neighbour, in one great sweep. The nations, starting with India, Maldives and Sri Lanka, to begin with, will have to plan together, work together and stay together under the evolving concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’.

A lot, however, would depend also on the Indian ability to convince all neighbours thus chosen to be included to be on the same page as New Delhi on the idea of ‘Indo-Pacific’. As bilateral and multi-lateral discourses begin, New Delhi may also be made realise that it cannot take unilateral decisions on common security and common strategies of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ or Quad kind and expect others in the region to accept and adopt.

Instead, they would require prior consultations at least from this moment on, and hope to be consulted in advance before New Delhi rushes into such concepts and expect them also to follow. In nations like Sri Lanka, and even others, with their own decades and centuries-old definitions and understanding of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’, domestic consensus also hinges on how the Government of the day is perceived on internal assessment of its external reach and out-reach.

To this end, New Delhi needs to realise that the region used to be the ‘traditional sphere of Indian influence’, a universally-accepted position that it had voluntarily surrendered, to the erstwhile Soviet Union in the Cold War years. Post-Cold War, it was the US first and the Quad, later on, with their original term and understanding of ‘Indian Ocean geo-strategic sphere’ getting replaced by the ‘Indo-Pacific’, instead.

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