Maritime security cooperation to be stepped up with Maldives, Sri Lanka

India is aiming to step up trilateral cooperation with Sri Lanka and the Maldives in maritime security despite the current cold vibes between New Delhi and Male. The three countries have started coordinating with one another in ensuring the security of the Indian Ocean patch in the neighbourhood. India has proposed an increase in the level of coordination, say government sources.

Although India is keeping minimal contacts with the Maldives regime after President Mohammed Waheed was unable to keep his word, given to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on continuing with the Indian corporate GMR’s Male airport contract, New Delhi does not want to create a security vacuum that could be exploited by religious extremists, who led the agitation calling for the scrapping of the project.

Besides cooperation in the area of security, India is keen that it continues to back institutions crucial to sustaining the Maldives’ nascent democracy such as the Election Commission and the judiciary. “We tend to forget that democracy in Maldives arrived very recently. It is important it takes root. What we are seeing are the ups and downs in any democracy. It has not settled down yet,” an official observed.

With pirates tending to travel long distances from their bases to strike at vulnerable ships and, on occasions, even harbours, the Maldives has reasons to feel insecure. Following the rise of aggressive and vocal fundamentalist organisations, its secular minded sections are concerned over winds of religious extremism being carried across the waters to the Maldives.

The intention behind stepping up coordination is to keep a close track of activities in the Indian Ocean. Officials from the three countries are already meeting regularly at various levels and the joint Coast Guard exercise, Dosti (Friendship), is now an established event. India and the Maldives will soon hold army-level joint exercises, another component in security ties, which included New Delhi providing security cover during the previous SAARC summit.

India has noticed the rising incidents of mugging and even murder, which, it thinks, are a symptom of the current political hiatus in the Maldives. The economy too has gone from bad to worse and today the Maldives is facing a large revenue shortfall and has a few weeks of foreign exchange reserves left.

This is the reason why India has avoided pressurising the Maldives, except for a brief period when it became strict with visa issuance after the cancellation of the GMR contract. Today, there are no pending cases of medical visas and the Indian High Commission in Male is looking into all emergency visa applications within 48 hours.

In the few days when India registered its pique at not being accommodated on the GMR contract issue, the number of medical cases from the Maldives at a few hospitals in south India dropped. But officials point out that the population of the Maldives is just 3 lakh. If one per cent of them — or 3,000 — normally headed to India for medical treatment, and some of them couldn’t go, the impact would hardly have been felt by the country’s entire medical tourism sector.

Though India is playing by the rules when it comes to docking of Maldivian vessels picking up essentials, it has ensured that the public at large are not singed by the actions of that country’s leaders. Instead of annually renewing the Maldives’ quota of essentials at subsidised prices, India has extended the validity of the agreement to three years.

“Sure, India is a major presence around Maldives, but it has been benign. We have assisted them in warding off a coup, provided relief after the tsunami and there is a quantum of development assistance that Maldives gets as a matter of routine,” said the official.

India is waiting for the next election, expected to be held within the next six months, to break the political log-jam in which none of the three largest parties holds the top executive position in the country. On a parallel track, however, its cooperation to make the Maldives and the surrounding neighbourhood secure will continue, they say.

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