Indian Ocean

India’s mixed success in expanding its security presence in the region

5 décembre 2023, 12:30


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India’s mixed success in expanding its security presence in the region

This month, newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu formally asked India to withdraw its military personnel from the Maldives during a visit by Indian Minister of Earth Sciences Kiren Rijiju.

The new Maldives administration has formally asked India to withdraw its military personnel from the country. This is just the latest setback that New Delhi has faced since dramatically looking to expand its security presence in the Indian Ocean.

The rise of Mohamed Muizzu

Dr Mohamed Muizzu, who won the Maldives’ presidential elections in September, has formally requested that Indian military personnel leave the country. The formal request came during a meeting between Muizzu and Indian minister Kiren Rijiju in Malé on November 18. According to an official statement from Malé, Muizzu had made the request since “the Maldivian people had given him a strong mandate to make the request to India, and (he) expressed the hope that India will honour the democratic will of the people of the Maldives”.

Muizzu’s victory came after the PPM-PNC coalition’s previous frontrunner Abdulla Yameen was convicted to 11 years in prison (since turned into house arrest) for corruption, leading the coalition to run Muizzu as its candidate. At the same time, ex-President Ibrahim Solih and his MDP party was split between factions loyal to Solih and ex-President Mohamed Nasheed who eventually set up his own party, The Democrats, and whom the MDP blamed for their loss in the presidential polls.

Muizzu’s demand that New Delhi withdraw its troops is just the latest in the zigzag within Maldive’s foreign policy in recent years, shuttling between India and China. Nasheed, who was President between 2008 and 2012 saw Maldives move much closer to India under an avowed “India First” policy until his overthrow in 2012 that paved the way for the brief administration of Waheed Hassan Manik, who terminated key projects with New Delhi (such as building an airport in Hulhule) and moved closer to China.

That same year saw the election of Abdulla Yameen who further moved Maldives into Beijing’s orbit and saw ties with New Delhi fray further. In 2014, Yameen hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and took the country into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), inked a free trade agreement and saw a slew of Chinese infrastructure spending coming in, including the construction of 7,000 flats and a bridge connecting the capital Malé with the island of Hulhule, both overseen by Muizzu, who a minister in Yameen’s administration.

In 2018, Ibrahim Solih’s administration came in and reversed direction by reinstating the old “India First” foreign policy. This time it was India’s turn to pour in the money participating in over 45 infrastructure projects by July 2021. Now with Muizzu replacing Solih, the pendulum seems to have swung back towards Beijing with the new President looking for financing to complete the $1 billion expansion of the Velana International Airport, $500 million to protect beaches, corals and protecting the country against rising sea levels while dealing with $7 billion in public and governmentguaranteed debt.

Muizzu’s demand.jpg Muizzu’s demand is due to his participation in a campaign since 2020 attacking ex-President Ibrahim Solih for his closeness to New Delhi.

‘India out’ and the conclave

Much of the fuel for Muizzu’s victory was provided by the opposition’s ‘India Out’ campaign endorsed by Yameen back in 2020. The campaign itself focused on three security-related developments: the first being a couple of Dhruv helicopters given by New Delhi in 2010 and 2016. Back in 2018, as the relationship between Yameen government and India nosedived, he demanded that India withdraw its helicopters. When the Solih government came to power, it quietly dropped the demand, but it was resuscitated by the ‘India Out’ campaign spearheaded by the PPM-PNC coalition. Alongside the two helicopters was a deal over a Dornier plane that was finalized in 2020. The problem for the opposition to Solih was that the helicopters and the plane saw the stationing of 75 Indian military personnel – 25 for the plane and 25 for each Dhruv helicopter – in Maldives, which became the focus of the campaign.

The second plank of the campaign was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between India and Maldives in 2019 to begin hydrographic surveys in 2021 to map Maldive’s seabed. And the third was the signing of the Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF) agreement in 2021, which would have seen India develop and help maintain a coastguard harbour for the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), but which the opposition maintained was, in reality, an Indian naval base which would see the influx of yet more Indian troops, their use of arms and communications equipment as well as the entry and exit of Indian vessels and aircraft. This was the basis for the ‘India Out’ campaign and its demand to eject Indian military personnel from the Maldives.

The campaign just added to Solih’s troubles. Already on the backfoot because of charges of favouritism in allocating housing on Hulumale island, sniping from Nasheed loyalists within the government and the slow pace of Indian infrastructure projects, the former President reacted by looking to outlaw the campaign itself. In 2022, he attempted to pass a bill in Maldives’ parliament to outlaw the ‘India Out’ campaign but was compelled to withdraw it due to a storm of criticism. Eventually he outlawed it by presidential decree and launched a crackdown on the PPM-PNC. Things just got worse when in June 2022, opposition supporters stormed a yoga day celebration organized by the Indian High Commission in Malé in full view of foreign diplomats.

The victory of Muizzu and the demand for India to downgrade its security relationship with Maldives is a significant complication for New Delhi’s bid to stitch together a security architecture for the region to check Beijing’s influence. While India relies on regional organizations such as the SAARC, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, in 2020, it refloated the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) comprising of India, Maldives, Mauritius and Sri Lanka and established a secretariat for the CSC in Colombo. It was the first such security mechanism that Mauritius has formally joined and of which Maldives is a key part. In November 2021, the Indian, Maldivian and Sri Lankan defence forces conducted their first exercises in the region. Now with Maldives looking to downgrade its security relationship with New Delhi, questions over the CSC’s future emerge.

The ‘Assumption Island’ issue

It’s not only Maldives, but Seychelles also, where New Delhi has faced problems. Starting in the peak of the Somali pirate problem in 2009-10, India and Seychelles began talks to develop a facility on Seychelles’ Assumption Island, strategically located near the Mozambique Channel, a key chokepoint for regional shipping.

During a regional tour in 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an MoU with President James Michel’s government to develop an Indian military facility on Assumption, which would be jointly run by the SPDF and the Indian navy for 20 years. However, just a year later in 2016, Seychelles was hit by a political earthquake: for the first time since 1977 when a coup brought Albert René to power, his party lost control of parliament. The opposition Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) led by Wavel Ramkalawan bagged 19 out of 33 seats giving the opposition an effective veto over the Assumption Island deal which needed to be ratified by the Seychellois parliament.

Faced with the defeat in 2016 James Michel quit as President handing over power to his Vice-President Danny Faure who struggled to get anything past an oppositiondominated parliament and inherited the job of keeping the Assumption deal alive. In January 2018, Faure attempted to rework the deal by adding in key amendments, such as not allowing India to use the island in case of a war breaking out or allowing third-party countries to use the facilities on the island if both Seychelles and New Delhi agreed.

president_prete_serment.jpg India’s bid to set up a facility on Seychelles’ Assumption Island was scuttled back in 2016 when Wavel Ramkalawan’s LDS wrested long-time control of parliament from Albert René’s party and then became President in 2020.

Despite this, that same month while on a parliamentary conference in India, Ramkalawan rebuffed then-Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s suggestion to revisit his stance on Assumption Island stating, “Seychelles would never accept any naval base of any country, be it the US or India or any other”. He later added: “Firstly, I want to make it clear that LDS has nothing more to do with the Assumption agreement. Secondly, LDS will not ratify the agreement on Assumption and thirdly, where LDS is concerned the agreement on Assumption is dead.” Unable to sway the opposition to back his revised agreement in parliament, Faure simply did not bring the deal to parliament, stalling it.

There was some hope with fresh presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2020 to break the deadlock. As it turned out, Ramkalawan beat Faure – marking the first presidential transfer of power since 1977 – and actually boosted the LDS’ grip on parliament to 25 seats as opposed to Faure’s United Seychelles, which was reduced to just 10 seats. Since then, there has been no indication that either President Ramkalawan or his party, the LDS, has revised their view of the Assumption Island deal with India.

Agalega, the rare bright spot

Faced with set backs in both Maldives and Seychelles, Mauritius’ 2015 deal with New Delhi over Agalega emerges as the rare bright spot for New Delhi. In December, it will complete work over a 3-km runway capable of running P-81 maritime surveillance planes and an expanded jetty to handle more shipping and bigger boats.

Agalega.jpg Agalega is the rare bright spot in an otherwise difficult strategic picture for New Delhi in the region.

Mauritius has long struggled with Agalega since it officially took over the island in October 1975 from the company Chagos-Agalega Ltd. Starting in the 1990s New Delhi began approaching Mauritius for a facility on Agalega under the guise of a tourism development spearheaded by either the Tata or Oberoi group. When that went nowhere, after 2003, the IBL Group came up with a plan to conduct regional tourism to Agalega and other outer islands.

Then in December 2005 ,the South African company ARCON proposed a $450 million project to install a wind power plant, a sewage plant, bungalows, a marina and restaurants in a tourism mega-project, but by 2008, that proposal fell through because ARCON was asking for 400 hectares of land – nearly the entire eastern side of both Agalega’s North and South islands. More specific proposals such as that by GIBB (Mauritius) Ltd to upgrade the runway for Rs54 million in 2003 or another offer by GIBB in 2011 for Rs120 million and Gamma Civic for Rs350 million went nowhere either because of a lack of available funds.

For the Mauritian government, the 2015 deal financed by India is being touted as an answer to its own longstanding troubles of deciding what to do with Agalega, but for India the deal is much more than that: it’s a rare example of a strategic project that has succeeded in becoming reality in a neighbourhood that has delivered a lot of bad news for New Delhi’s strategic push in recent years.