Expanding Indo-Maldives Security and Defence Relations

Cover Story

The agreement, which was reached at the highest politico-military level, includes operational assistance by India’s tri-services to the Maldives Armed Forces and intelligence sharing

India has always enjoyed good relations with Maldives, the highpoint being India’s assistance to Maldives to thwart a coup in 1988 to oust the then President Maumoon Abd al-Gayoom. Indian troops launched Operation Cactus to counter the coup initiated by a group of Maldivians led by Abdullah Luthufi and assisted by about 80 armed mercenaries of the Sri Lankan secessionist organisation, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

As India’s profile in the Indian Ocean rises and the Indian government focuses on strengthening existing relations with immediate neighbours in South Asia, Indo-Maldives relations are all set to reach new highs, which will be a benchmark for other countries in the region.

Strategic Significance

Maldives is an important component of India’s maritime strategy, considering its expanding presence in the western Indian Ocean with its commercial and strategic route to Africa extending to the Western Hemisphere. The significance of the island nation was reinforced by the 2009 defence pact signed between India and the Maldives to boost strategic ties during the visit of former Defence Minister A.K. Antony.

The agreement, which was reached at the highest politico-military level, includes operational assistance by India’s tri-services to the Maldives Armed Forces and intelligence sharing. As per this bilateral defence pact, the two countries have agreed to bolster defence cooperation aimed at fortifying Maldivian security. India has agreed to set up a radar network across the Maldives, which will benefit the island nation as it does not have a Navy of its own. These maritime network radars will be linked with Indian military surveillance systems. The defence pact also includes protection of the Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone and enhances cooperation in maritime surveillance and aerial mobility. Warships of the Indian Navy and Coastguard will patrol the pirate-infested waters around Maldives. India has also gifted the fast attack craft, INS Tilanchang to the Maldives as a goodwill gesture.

Considering the importance of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean strategic matrix, all aspiring powers in the Indian Ocean have tried to establish their base there. Though India’s official position so far has not been about acquiring any bases, it is true that increased maritime cooperation with atoll countries, especially Maldives, in the Indian Ocean is very much on the agenda.

Joint Counter-Terrorism Mechanism

Going beyond the strategic importance of Maldives, New Delhi has also understood that increased strategic cooperation, including active counter-terrorism mechanisms, will thwart any further seaborne terror attacks on India, similar to the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. India also understands the shared concern of the United States administration which has identified the Maldives as vulnerable to terrorists and has pledged to provide military equipment and services to the country. These counter-terrorism mechanisms are aimed at curtailing the influence of terrorist organisations seeking to create a base in and around atolls of Maldives. This joint counter-terrorism mechanism will include active intelligence sharing aimed at specifically nullifying any sort of influence that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might have in Maldives in the foreseeable future, considering the volatile situation in West Asia.

India’s enhanced military ties with Maldives is a significant move to promote long term military deterrence against China’s increased maritime profile in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), exemplified by the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. As a part of this strategy, China has tried to encircle India by building deep water ports in Pakistan’s Gwadar city in Baluchistan province and in Sri Lanka’s southern tip of Hambantota. Analysts believe that the defence pact with Maldives is the first step by India to counter the Chinese strategy. India also plans to deepen relations with new allies in other archipelago nations such as Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar. Further, India is expected to assist in the construction of a naval base off the main island of Male, based on the request made by Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Gayoom. This will enable India to have a forward maritime presence in the Indian Ocean at a time when India is expanding its Western Fleet and building a base in Karwar.

Strategic Maritime Expansion

As a part of its expanding maritime strategy, India has consolidated its existing maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka. The July 2013 trilateral maritime security cooperation agreement between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives has the potential to expand into an informal strategic partnership, if not an alliance. This maritime cooperation was sealed by UPA II government during the National Security Advisor level meeting in March 2014 among India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, with delegations from Mauritius and Seychelles also participating. This informal security alliance can translate into operational cooperation in maritime security, paving the way for an effective maritime strategy, especially in the Indian Ocean, culminating in India’s Grand Strategy. The BJP government will carry forward the task of expanding India’s role and presence in the Indian Ocean, which includes both subtle diplomacy and an assertive forward naval presence.

In conclusion, Indo-Maldives defence and security ties, which form an important part of India’s strategic outreach to the Indian Ocean, are all set to expand in the foreseeable future, especially in view of the Indian government’s endeavour to include small island nations in its overall Grand Strategy.

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Balaji Chandramohan
Balaji Chandramohan is associated with the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, a think-tank of Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff and handles the Communication Cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party in India. He is also a member of the Australian Labour Party and New Zealand Labour Party. Views expressed in the article are his own and not necessarily of his political affiliations and think-tank.

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