India drops anchor in the Maldives

Posted in India | 02-Sep-09 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

NEW DELHI - For some time, India and China have eyed each other's influence in the Indian Ocean region, which has significant strategic, military, transport, energy and commercial interests for both countries.

The recent three-day visit of Indian Defense Minister A K Antony to the Maldives for a meeting with President Mohammed Nasheed is viewed as one more step by Delhi to increase its presence in this important region.

Defense engagements between India and the Maldives are described as of those between "good friends and equal partners". Antony said the Maldivian authorities "expressed concerns over the crucial tasks of safeguarding and protecting their vast exclusive economic zone while stating its need to develop and enhance maritime surveillance and aerial mobility capabilities".

To allay the fears raised by Male, Indian navy and coast guard warships will patrol the pirate-infested waters of the Maldives. This will also help Delhi secure the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands.

While the immediate reason for enhanced defense cooperation is to build military assets in the Maldives to guard against terrorists and pirates, observers also view India's military positioning in the Indian Ocean island nation as a furtherance of its longer-term military deterrence against China.

India has for some while talked of a naval base and a listening post in the Maldives to contain Beijing's growing muscle in the region.

Further, the Maldives being a Muslim country, India is wary about the influence that Pakistan may exert, including the possibility of infiltration by terror cells to launch attacks in India, as has happened in Bangladesh. New Delhi has thus been looking to set up an intelligence base in Male.

"India and the Maldives have agreed on a series of measures to step up defense cooperation between the two countries,' an Indian Defense Ministry spokesperson said of Antony's visit.

Officials have said that regular Dornier surveillance flights and an air force station, as well as military helicopters and 26 coastal radars, are part of the security plan. A 25-bed military hospital in Male has also been pledged by India.

India may also set up a network of ground radars on major atolls of the Maldives. linking them with the Indian Coastal Command. This would bring the Maldives into the eye of India's coastal security setup and within the security network of its armed forces.

India is concerned over bases being set up by China in its neighborhood, which have been described as a "string of pearls' around India's neck that could easily be tightened should the need arise.

In Gwadar, Pakistan, China is developing a deep-water harbor that could be used by its expanding fleet of nuclear submarines. Ports and other infrastructure projects are being developed by China in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

India has been particularly unhappy about the deep-water port in Hambantota on Sri Lanka's south coast, being built with the help of the Chinese. After being beaten in Myanmar, Delhi is also wary that Chinese energy firms are going to make a dash for Sri Lanka's oil and gas sources in the Mannar Basin. China is already building two naval bases in Myanmar. Major Chinese investments are also being made in East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.

Over the long term, Chinese naval officers speak of developing three ocean-going fleets to patrol the areas of Japan and Korea and the western Pacific, the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean.

Not to be left wanting, India has already established a new listening post that has begun operations in northern Madagascar, a large island off Africa's east coast. The monitoring station is to gather intelligence on foreign navies operating in the region by linking with similar facilities in Mumbai and Kochi located on India's west coast and which are the headquarters of the India navy's western and southern commands, respectively.

The station is India's first in the southern Indian Ocean and is significant due to the increasing oil traffic now going round the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa via the Mozambique channel. India has also set up a monitoring facility at an island it has leased from Mauritius situated to the east of Madagascar.

The latest defense agreements with the Maldives only strengthen such moves.

The Maldives comprises over 1,000 tiny islands, out of which about 200 are inhabited; over 640 kilometers separate the northernmost island from the southern islands. The island chain is about 400 nautical miles from the Indian coast.

Relations between India and the Maldives have always been good. The country's independence in 1965 from Britain was first recognized by India, and the country has emerged as a high-end tourist destination, especially for Western travelers.

In 1988, New Delhi extended quick assistance when the island nation faced a coup. In 2004, India was the first to send relief when it was hit by a tsunami. In 2006, India gifted a fast attack craft to the Maldives.

Powering the seas
Powering the seas remains a crucial cog in India's ongoing defense modernization exercise that is estimated will cost more than US$100 billion.

The Indian navy is looking to produce at least 25 underwater vessels valued at $20 billion to meet challenges across the Indian Ocean. The government plans to invest over $15 billion over the next 10 years on warships.

India's first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, was launched for trials last month. This is part of the $3 billion plan to build five submarines and complete the triad of nuclear weapons launch pads - from air, land and sea platforms.

Built under the Advanced Technology Vessel project with Russian help, INS Arihant is expected to be commissioned around 2012. India will be the sixth country after the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain to possess a nuclear-powered submarine.

Meanwhile, construction of the highly advanced Scorpene submarine is progressing at the upgraded Mazgon Dock (Mumbai) under a $3.5 billion deal for six such French submarines.

India has developed a submarine-launched supersonic missile, a modification of the BrahMos cruise missiles, a capability limited so far to advanced nations such as the US, France and Russia.

Ship- and land-launched versions of the cruise missiles BrahMos are being inducted into the navy and army. The state-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization is also undertaking a joint development project with Israel Aerospace Industries for a surface-to-air missile for use by ship or on land.

In early 2007, India purchased the 36-year-old warship, the USS Trenton (rechristened the INS Jalashwa) from America. It has a gross tonnage of 16,900 tonnes and cost $50 million.

The INS Jalashwa is the first-ever warship purchased from the US and the second-biggest that India now possesses, after aircraft carrier INS Viraat.

Indian navy commanders have steadfastly tried to impress the political leadership about India's need for at least three aircraft carriers, for the eastern and western seaboards, while the third maybe be refitted and upgraded to secure strategic interests that stretch from Africa's eastern coast to the Malacca Strait.

INS Viraat, which as per earlier plans should have been junked by now, has been refitted to operate for five more years, by which time India hopes to have procured more sea carriers. India's 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier being built at Cochin Shipyard, Kochi, Kerala, will be ready in 2015-2016.

Despite India's efforts to hasten the procurement of the refurbished 44,570-tonne Admiral Gorshkov from Russia, undergoing a refit at the Sevmash Shipyard in north Russia, the ship armed with MiG fighter jets will only be available by 2013. India and Russia are yet to work out the final cost of the Gorshkov's refit, with Moscow wanting nearly $3 billion and India prepared to shell out a little more than $2 billion.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]

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