Aviation Diplomacy Opinion Politics

Maldives: Can Indian Dornier fall into ‘wrong hands’?

A Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft of India

With a leading Indian newspaper reporting that India had long back offered a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to the Maldives, but the host-nation had not responded in months/years, there should be greater concern about Male’s intent on the bilateral front, especially in terms of strategic and security cooperation in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood. What more, the paper has also reported Indian concerns, expressed by an unnamed official source, that the Government of President Abdulla Yameen, may want the two Indian naval helicopters and personnel back, so as possibly to help China expand its (military?) footprint in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Even granting that Maldives responds late, and accepts the Indian Dornier, with or without extending the stay-period for the two Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF), the question arises if the former could/would fall into ‘wrong hands’. Translated, it does not refer to ‘Maldivian IS cadres’ or any other fundamentalist group, with which a section of the Indian strategic community gets occasionally hyped/hyper about. Instead, it could just mean if China could access information about onboard surveillance equipment on board the aircraft when donated to the Maldives.

It is not the first time that India would be parking a surveillance aircraft. Years ago, India had put them on another Indian Ocean neighbour, Mauritius, with clearance from the host-government, following reports of Chinese intention of doing so. It is another matter that an Indian Dornier, like the ALH helicopters, could well be operated by IAF/Indian Navy pilots and technicians, but access to flyers attached to the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) is but natural, as with the current management.

There is, of course, no question of China having direct access to the Dornier. Nor are there any reports of it happening in the case of ALH, either. Early episodes of India-US air force exercises/war games, had raised eyebrows if they would give the latter access to Russian Sukhoi fighters, which Moscow had not then supplied even to the nation’s air force. It was a claim that was never proved, nor contested but left to linger and disappear.

Reporting the follow-up on the Indian media report that Maldives wanted India to replace one of the two ALF with a Dornier surveillance aircraft, Maldives’ publication Mihaaru claimed that India had agreed to the proposal though no formal agreement had been signed, as yet. The 6 April report has not been contested or attested in India. But the recent Indian media report calls what it says the Maldivian ‘bluff’ by pointing out that the Indian offer for a Dornier has been pending with Male for two years now.

According to the Mihaaru report, quoting an official source, the “Maldivian military would use the (Dornier) aircraft for the same services as the helicopter, which include carrying sick patients in medical emergencies…But we can’t say when we’d receive the aircraft.”  As the updated Indian media report, quoting Indian sources, has clarified, the ALF is more/alone suited for airlifting patients and ocean-search operations, unlike the Dornier, which cannot land in the small island spaces in the Maldives, not hold on in mid-air while air-lifting from mid-sea.

Key attraction

The truth of the Maldivian request for a ‘swap-deal’ on the flying machines apart, it came only days after the nation had declined the Indian invitation for joining a multi-nation naval exercise. Around the time the new request made it to the Indian media first, followed by reaction from the Maldivian government, the Government of President Abdulla Yameen also declined Indian invitation to participate in the multi-nation Indian Defence Expo (11-14 April) in Chennai, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi could still be a key attraction.

There can be no denying that the Maldivian rejection of Indian invitations of the kind is a reflection on the current phase of (strained) bilateral relations. Needless to recall, the Yameen leadership is more than upset over what it perceives as Indian ‘interference’ in the nation’s ‘domestic affairs’, pertaining to ‘democracy issues’, now arising out of the 1 February Supreme Court order, which is controversial, still.

It is anybody’s guess why PM Modi did not consider inviting all South Asian leaders, as he did for his May 2014 swearing-in, for the defence expo, which is a great show for the entire region. It was not unlikely that Yameen, in particular, may have stayed away, given the current Maldivian Government mood towards India, Indian leadership, and India’s present-day ‘Maldives policy’.

Look closer home

Overall, there is a need for the Indian leadership to look closer home even while flying high on the global plane. The former is a realistic need of, and demand on India, while the latter is (only) by invitation, and perceived/propagated relevance that is centred on the West’s over-lapping concerns over Chinese expansionism’, and not on inherent Indian strengths and requirements.

In the immediate Maldivian context, there may be need for India (too) to reconsider its 1 February-centric decision on turning down the Maldivian request for the Foreign Minister to meet with PM Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and explain Yameen’s position on the ‘Maldivian controversy’, as it stood at the time. It would have been a second in a row for Dr Mohamed Asim – without a return visit from the Indian side, in between — after his December 2017 visit, which was supposed to be aimed at cooling off still-raising temperature in bilateral relations.

The proposal for the Asim visit, alongside similar visits by other Maldivian special envoys to countries that the Yameen leadership considered mattered, clearly indicated the immediacy of the issues involved, and the Yameen leadership’s ‘desire’, however formal, to keep India in the loop. By keeping the line of communication open, India could still have expressed all its reservations on the unfolding domestic scenario in the Maldives, without going public – or, having to go public, later on.

Burnt the bridges?

By receiving Minister Asim when the Maldives showed an interest to brief the Indian leadership on their domestic affairs – though on their terms – New Delhi would still have retained a legitimate right and consequent interest and talking to the Yameen leadership, taking advantage of the ‘Asim brief’. By declining the Asim briefing-proposal citing scheduling problems, and not reviving the same from the Indian side, New Delhi may have closed the door on the Maldives, when the latter (alone) had opened it for India.

India seems to have burnt the bridges with the Yameen leadership, though not for all time to come. Bilateral relations are not zero-sum games, and can and would have to be revived through proper channels and through proper ways. The question right now is, who blinks, and who blinks first. Leave aside the 1 February Supreme Court verdict and political consequences nearer home and diplomatic consequences for India relations, Maldives had sought to bridge the growing yet visible bilateral gaps by sending out Minister Asim in December. 

In the past decade, before the 2008 multi-party democratic Constitution and elections in the Maldives, the Opposition had claimed that the then Gayoom regime had handed over an atoll to China, for developing a submarine facility. The Indian strategic community breathed easy only after local naval experts with experience in submarines told them that the Maldivian waters, especially the reefs were most ill-suited for the structural safety of submarines.

The second Indian ALF is based on the atoll, and its stay-period ends this month. The other ALF was based in the strategic southern, Addu Atoll, where the British Protector had an RAF base till 1965, and which lies not far away from the US military base in Diego Garcia.

The larger question in this context pertains to perception-based differences, at the US-China level at one end, and the India-Maldives level at another – though mostly with particular reference to the incumbent Yameen leadership. For India, however, the Maldives’ security setback comes in the midst of another southern IOR neighbour in Seychelles going back on the MoU for a base in Assumption Island.

Given, however, the fluidity of the continuing political and electoral situations in India’s neighbourhood, all of them going by the name of ‘democracy’, the question is if extra-regional powers, especially India-friendly US and the rest of the West, should have consulted the local players, et al, before formulating their own concepts and theories of the ‘free and open’ kind. Or, should they have left it all to India, and also find fault with ‘democracies’ in nations such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, from a western perspective and at times convenient to them?

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