At a time when relations between India and the Maldives are clearly in a free fall, the Madives government has asked the Indian government to take back one of the two naval helicopters that India had gifted to the Indian Ocean archipelago.
India was still discussing with the Abdulla Yameen government what the real issue was, but a top Maldives government source said that they wanted a Dornier Maritime Surveillance Aircraft instead of the “Dhruv” Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) which India had given to Male (capital of Maldives). The chopper which Maldives wants India to take back operates from the Addu atoll.
This is certain to strain India’s relations with Maldives further and will also raise questions on India’s defence and security cooperation with Male at a time when China is making deep inroads into the strategically located country with its connectivity and other infrastructure projects.
Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Maldives recently, becoming the first foreign dignitary to visit the 1190-island archipelago after the 45-day Emergency was lifted there in March this year.
Seeking to justify the decision, officials in the Yameen government also said that the Letter of Exchange (LoE) for the ALH at Addu had expired. The LoE though is renewed every two years and this is for the first time that Male has chosen to not renew it. Among other things, the stay of Indian personnel in the Maldives is also facilitated by the LoE.
Male is said to be also considering asking India to remove the other Indian ALH too, which operates from the Laamu atoll. The Yameen government denied that any decision had been taken on the Laamu atoll chopper. Laamu in southern Maldives is a sensitive location as that’s where China is said to be considering building a port. Recent evacuation of inhabitants from the Gaadhoo island there, and Chinese presence in the region, has again raised questions about the intentions of the Yameen government.
India, with an eye firmly on China, has invested heavily in Maldives in providing military aid, training and “capacity-building” over the last several years. Apart from gifting a fast-attack craft, India has stationed six pilots and over a dozen ground personnel to operate the ALHs and help the Maldivian National Defence Forces.
An Indian Navy Dornier Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft and a warship alternatively also make a weekly sortie to the Maldives to patrol its exclusive economic zone under a long-standing bilateral agreement.
India is also helping Maldives in setting up 10 coastal surveillance radar system (CSRS) stations, each with navigation radars, electrooptic sensors and AIS (automatic identification system) transponders. India has helped set up similar CSRS stations in Seychelles and Mauritius, among other countries in the Indian Ocean Region.
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