The Maldives declining India’s invitation to participate in the naval exercise “Milan” need not automatically lead us to the inference that Male has decided to spurn the India connection as it’s engaged in wooing China, or that the Maldives’ decision is dictated solely by Beijing.
The China factor may well have played a part, but going by this explanation alone will shrink the diplomatic space for New Delhi. India-Maldives ties have looked fragile for some years. It’s precisely at such a time that diplomacy must be given fuller play while being ready to exercise other aspects of state power.
The Maldives high commission in New Delhi has officially said the reason for its Navy not participating in the week-long exercise beginning in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from March 6 is that the state of emergency declared in the nation of atolls requires the deployment of all its naval forces and their equipment in maintaining security.
This doesn’t appear to be an unreasonable proposition no matter how reprehensible the proclamation of emergency which New Delhi has strongly urged Male to roll back so normal life can resume, including restoring the status of Parliament, the Opposition parties and the judiciary.
At the same time, however, India should ascertain the causes behind Male deciding not to participate in the “Milan” programme of the Indian Navy designed as part of its regional maritime outreach architecture. This year 16 navies were listed as prospective participants, including the Maldives. Hard-nosed diplomacy will be needed to understand what’s going on behind the scenes.
The “Milan” outreach effort was begun in 1995 with four nations participating. Since then more and more nations have been taking part. Among others, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Oman are likely participants next week. This is a major positive for India.
Apart from seminars, discussions and socialising, the exercise takes in joint operations out in the sea to underscore inter-operability. This is why it is held in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, housing India’s only tri-services command, the base for a blue water navy.
With the Chinese Navy also seeking to spread itself in the Indian Ocean region in recent years, the smaller countries do harbour a sense of anxiety and are happy to associate with a major regional naval force.
If Male has ducked this time around on account of considerations that may give comfort to China, then India will need to possibly refurbish itself in the Indian Ocean region through upgraded diplomatic activity with various countries, as well as raising its naval and air capabilities.
This will call for budgetary support and political will in pursuit of a well thought out strategic design which cannot but include steps to pre-empt Chinese naval activity in countries on our periphery.