An ‘India out’ plan that could impact the Maldives

Male’s decision not to renew its hydrography pact with India needs to be seen in the context of its eagerness for a strategic concert with China

Updated - January 03, 2024 09:00 am IST

Published - January 03, 2024 12:08 am IST

“China has an expansive oceanographic research programme, in which ‘scientific research vessels’ are regularly deployed in the Indian Ocean’

“China has an expansive oceanographic research programme, in which ‘scientific research vessels’ are regularly deployed in the Indian Ocean’ | Photo Credit: AP

The recent decision by the Maldives to revoke an agreement with India for joint hydrographic surveys in Maldivian waters has caused considerable dismal in Indian media and strategic circles. Inked during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the islands in 2019, the pact was seen as a symbol of India-Maldives defence ties.

The move by Male, in mid-December 2023, came a few weeks after the archipelagic state formally asked New Delhi to withdraw its Indian military presence from its shores. As if to emphasise its reservations about defence engagement with India, Male also skipped the latest meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave, also in December.

That trust between India and the Maldives is at a low ebb is manifestly evident. Since the election of Mohamed Muizzu as Maldivian President in November 2023, there has been a deliberate, if predictable, attempt by Male to create a distance with New Delhi. The Maldives would like the world to believe that terminating the hydrography pact is a way of asserting its autonomy and agency. It is not. Far from balancing ties with India, Male has thrown in its political lot with China. The Muizzu administration’s refusal to renew the hydrography pact seems less to do with the President’s sensitivities about sovereignty than with his special relationship with Beijing. Getting Indian hydrographic ships out of Maldivian waters appears intended to aid China’s marine surveys of the surrounding seas.

The dual nature of hydrography

It is worth noting that hydrographic data inherently has a dual nature in that the information collected from the seas can be used for civilian and military purposes. Marine scientists maintain that the data that helps advance non-military objectives, such as ensuring navigational safety, marine scientific research, and environmental monitoring, can also be used to facilitate military aims such as surveillance of a nation’s vital coastal installations and war-fighting assets.

Even so, China is unique in using its marine and seabed surveys to advance a largely strategic agenda. The country has an expansive oceanographic research programme, in which “scientific research vessels”, in particular the Shi Yan class of oceanographic survey vessels and the Yuan Wang series of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance ships are regularly deployed in the Indian Ocean. Their presence goes largely unnoticed, eclipsed by China’s growing naval footprint. For China, however, marine surveys and reconnaissance are critical enablers of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s maritime strategy in the far seas. It is no happenstance that Chinese authorities approached Sri Lanka and the Maldives many times last year to allow the docking of marine research ships.

On China’s surveys

Indian observers point out that China’s ocean surveys play an important part in enhancing China’s antisubmarine warfare capabilities. The mapping of the ocean’s temperature profile and the study of other oceanic phenomena such as currents and eddies, they contend, is meant to improve sonar performance and detection of enemy submarines. Studying the marine environment also aids in the development of systems that help Chinese submarines elude detection and fine-tune tactics for littoral combat.

However, China’s oceanographic surveys in the waters of friendly South Asian states are potentially hampered by the presence of Indian hydrographic ships in the area. The Indian Navy has the capability to track foreign ships’ subsurface sensor activity. Chinese hydrographers suspect the Navy’s operations in the waters of Indian Ocean island states could interfere with China’s own marine survey efforts.

Meanwhile, speculation abounds in New Delhi of a Chinese plan to develop a naval base in the Maldives. In 2018, China planned an ocean observatory in Makunudhoo Atoll, north of Male — not far from India’s Lakshadweep Islands. Maldivian opposition leaders had then expressed reservations about the observatory’s potential military applications, including a provision for a submarine base. There is no evidence yet that China has revived that proposal, but recent developments suggest that the possibility cannot be discounted.

Male’s concerns

For its part, the Maldives has apprehensions about India’s hydrographic activity being a form of intelligence collection. Its concerns are not entirely unfounded — not because Indian activity in Maldivian waters is suspect, but because the laws and legal framework governing hydrography are not different from the norms governing military surveys. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not explicitly authorise a coastal state to regulate hydrographic surveys or military surveys conducted beyond its territorial sea; a littoral state may only regulate marine scientific research in its exclusive economic zone (EEZs). By implication, foreign maritime agencies conducting hydrographic surveys are free to map the seas outside a coastal state’s territorial waters. It is this prospect that Male finds problematic.

The discrepancy, though glaring outwardly, is better understood if one considers that the aim of hydrography is not to collect data about topography and geophysical processes for the sake of knowledge. Instead, it caters to a specific demand, which can come either from marine ecologists, scientists, and the maritime industry, or military strategists and national security planners. That does not alter the reality that many navies, in particular India’s, have an exemplary track record of hydrographic surveys in their neighbourhoods. The Indian Navy has rendered hydrographic assistance to Mauritius since the 1990s, charting the vast Mauritian EEZs and helping build capacity, even assisting with the setting up of a hydrographic unit for skill development among Mauritian hydrographers.

The best bet for the Maldives to enhance maritime awareness and security remains a partnership with India. The Muizzu administration must recognise that it is not India but China that seeks to weaponise ocean surveys. The eagerness for a strategic concert with Beijing, driven plainly by political compulsions, could entail adverse consequences for Male.

Abhijit Singh is Head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi

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