The location of the Republic of Maldives astride the major sealanes in the Indian Ocean is of strategic relevance to India. — Ministry of Defence’s annual report, 2000.
27 July 2001: China has engineered a manner of a coup by coaxing Maldives’ Abdul Gayoom government to let it establish a base in Marao. Marao is one of the largest of the 1192 coral islands grouped into atolls that comprise Maldives and lies 40 km south of Male, the capital.
Coral islands make fine submarine pens. The Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy or PLAN proposes to deploy nuclear submarines fitted with sea-launched Dong Feng-44 missiles and ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in Marao.
Scientists warn that global warming is pushing up ocean and sea levels. They fear that most of Maldives will be submerged by year 2040. Marao may be one of the few large islands that may survive. “And even if it goes under water,” said a naval official, “it will be ideal for submarines.”
The base deal was finalised after two years of negotiations when Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji visited Male on 17 May 2001 on his four-nation South Asian tour. It marks a high point in China’s ambitious – and audacious – plan to encircle India and choke its emergent blue-water navy in the Indian Ocean itself.
And it indicates schisms with Maldives, a friendly country saved from a coup by Indian special forces in November 1988.
Gayoom & India
Maldives president Gayoom visited India in August 2000 and held consultations with prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on issues of mutual interest including “cross-border terrorism” and regional security. Maldives favours “direct talks” between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue. Maldives is a Sunni Muslim country that gained independence from Britain and has fair relations with Pakistan.
After the talks in New Delhi, Gayoom met reporters and disclosed that Maldives was “not considering any proposal to set up a permanent Indian naval base” in that country. He added that there was no such proposal from the Indian side, and that the issue did not figure in the talks. He concluded with a tantalising half-observation that Maldives had “excellent levels of cooperation in defence” with India.
That statement hid some things. It hid, for example, the fact that both India and China were actively wooing Maldives or, at any rate, spoiling it for each other.
Five months before Gayoom’s visit, Indian naval chief Sushil Kumar had been to Male. In November 2000, Maldives’ junior minister for defence and national security, Major General Abdul Sattar Anbaree, came to India. From 9-12 January 2001, (then) defence minister George Fernandes toured Maldives and held extensive discussions with Major-General Anbaree.
“Naval chief Sushil Kumar and Fernandes‘ visits got the Chinese suspicious,” said a naval official. The Chinese had themselves taken off five times to Maldives before the Rongji visit “under the pretext of boosting bilateral trade and Chinese assistance for infrastructural development and boosting tourism”. But Fernandes’ visit was the turning point for them, not least because Fernandes, a Lohia-ite, lead the anti-Chinese lobby in the Indian government and had once labeled China India’s “no 1 threat”.
In February 2001, a small delegation from Pakistan visited Maldives to boost cultural ties. “The Pakistanis put pressure on Male to facilitate Chinese plans for a naval base,” said an official. “China used Pakistan to play the Islamic card with Maldives.”
China is close to striking a formal deal with Maldives for Marao. It will use Marao islands for 25 years on lease and pay back Maldives in foreign currency and create jobs for the locals dependent entirely on tourism and fishing.
The Marao base’s principal aim would be to contain the Indian navy. “China,” said a naval official, “is worried that the Indian Navy is getting more natural islets in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal to establish bases that can impose a sea denial on China in case of a conflict in the South China Sea and harm Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean region.”
But the Marao base is not expected to be operational until 2010. In the interim, according to a November 2000 white paper on China’s national defence, PLAN and PLA’s naval air force could deploy a minimum of two aircraft carrier battle groups and five submarine groups in the Indian Ocean. Oilers, AWACS and refueling aircraft will support these groups.
But once Marao comes up, China’s power projection in the Indian Ocean will stabilise. It will also set China on the course followed in the earlier superpower, Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Both states built a series of naval bases throughout the world for emergency counter-offensive measures. China is embarked on doing the same.
More bases signify a bigger navy. This is also on the cards. According to the November 2000 white paper, China is moving away from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai’s “People’s War” doctrine biased toward land-based wars and land-based forces to a greater thrust on sea-based forces. The 2001-2002 defence budget gave PLAN a higher share of 35 per cent but cut the army allocation to 29 per cent.
These developments have worried the US that has proposed to its ASEAN allies and friendly countries to create a joint command to contain China and prevent its expansion in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The US is keen for India to hasten construction of the Far Eastern Naval Command in the Andaman Islands, and this was repeated by the chairman of the US joint chiefs, General Henry H. Shelton, who visited India recently.
Specific to the Marao base, the US sent navy chief Dennis Blair to Maldives a month after Rongji’s visit to take stock of China’s military diplomacy. While the US base in Diego Garcia can launch surprise offensives, the US wants to restrict Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean because of its strategic value.
According to one survey, some $260 billion worth of oil and gas will be shipped through the Indian Ocean by year 2004. The oil route stretching from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz will be at the mercy of any power that dominates the sealanes. A Chinese base in Marao islands puts it in a direct position to influence oil commerce. It is a prospect that daunts India, scares Southeast Asia, and alarms the US.
On Wednesday, 25 July 2001, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the US needed to keep a strong military presence in Asia to deter any future threats from China. “I’ve always felt,” he said, “that weakness is provocative, that it kind of invites people to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t think about doing.” He disclosed that the Pentagon was evolving a new strategy for Asia that would focus on military operations.
But China is pressing ahead with its military plans with equal vigour – and stealth. It is most noticeable in the Marao affair. Indian officials say that China engaged two American and three European companies in the past two years to conduct aerial and deep-sea surveys to assess Maldives’ suitability for a base. But the agreement with the companies was for monitoring the weather and magnetic response of the seabed in and around Male.
And yet, such environment-protection surveys may be more than a cover for a base. Environmental protection could also carry a political thrust. Maldives told the UN in 1987 that a 6.6 feet rise in sea level could submerge all of the country. Sea level is rising because of global warming. Global warming is a matter of paranoia for Maldives.
Maldives has criticised the decision of US president George Bush to reject the Kyoto pact on global warming. China calls the US decision “irresponsible”, though it is one of the largest emitters of the global-warming carbon dioxide gas, and Zhu Rongji said in Male that China would work with Maldives on environmental issues.
“It will,” said an official, “take China next to nothing to convert an honourable campaign against global warming into an anti-American campaign in Maldives.”
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I N T E L L I G E N C E
Chinese naval base in Maldives
23 July 2001: China has planned to establish a naval base in Marao Islands near Maldives in the Indian Ocean by 2010 and deploy nuclear-powered submarines fitted with submarine-launched Dong Feng-44 missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), Indian officials disclosed.
‘The base,’ officials said, ‘is designed to encircle India and neutralise its offensive power projection in the Indian Ocean.’
China has a base in Myanmar’s Coco Islands since 1993 plus listening posts along the Bay of Bengal to monitor Indian naval movement.
China has been working on the Marao Islands base for two years and it materialised in May 2001 when Chinese premier Zhou Rongji visited Maldives as part of his south Asian tour.
‘Beijing is establishing the base under the cover of creating an observatory in Male that will monitor weather conditions throughout the year to determine climate changes,’ officials said. ‘China is publicly claiming that it is affected by climate changes severely.’
China is close to signing a 25-year lease agreement with Maldives for use of Marao Islands and will pay back in foreign currency and create jobs for the locals who are dependent on tourism and fishery.
I N T E L L I G E N C E
China-Maldives joint exercises off
17 August 2001:
China has backed off from conducting a joint marine and deep-sea patrolling exercise with Maldives, Indian officials disclosed.
No reasons for cancellation of the July 2001 exercises were given. China claims that the exercises were sought by Maldives. Maldives is maintaining silence over the exercises.
Maldives has decided in principle to lease one of its large islands in the Indian Ocean, Marao, for a Chinese submarine base (Intelligence, ‘Chinese naval base in Maldives,’ 23 July 2001).
Indian naval officials say that the Chinese navy will use the base to control the Indian Ocean sealanes and attempt to stifle the emergent Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean.
‘The exercise while innocuous was typical of the Chinese way of creeping expansionism,’ said an Indian official. ‘The Chinese did not think it was worthwhile to provoke the US by conducting even a tiny naval exercise in the Indian Ocean at this point of time.’
US sanctions against China for supplying M-9 and M-11 missiles to Pakistan are imminent, according to Indian diplomats. Plus the WTO meeting is coming up in Doha and China does not want the US to block its entry into WTO for any reason. Finally, the incident of the Chinese forcelanding of a US navy spy plane last April agitates the US military.
‘In the circumstances, China does not want to provoke the US,’ said a diplomat. ‘It could be the reason for cancellation of the exercise.’
But a team from Maldives’ ministry of surface transport is due to visit six major Chinese cities in October 2001 during which Indian officials expect finalisation of dates for the Chinese-Maldives joint exercises.
The exercises may now be held in late November 2001, Indian officials said.
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China seeks Maldives base again
24 April 2004 : Confronted by some Western powers, Maldives has admitted to secretly receiving a Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army-Navy team early last month, but its explanation that the team carried out preliminary oceanic and environmental studies is not being believed.
Nearly three years ago, we scooped China’s plans to establish a submarine base in Marao (Special Report, ‘China: Base strategy ,’27 July 2001), one of the largest of the 1192 coral islands grouped into atolls that comprise Maldives, but premature publicity scuttled the project, and diplomats say the Peoples’ Republic may be at it again.
The PLA-N team met Maldives’ prime minister and defence minister, apparently surveyed the ocean within a radius of 180 kilometers from Male, the capital, and enquired about setting up observatories and disaster-management centres, because the island nation may be submerged by 2040, since global warming is pushing up ocean and sea levels.
Marao will be one of the few islands to survive submergence, and in any case, submerged coral islands make better submarine pens.
When Western countries first confronted Maldives with the PLA-N visit, the island officials mumbled about joint naval exercises, but later gave environmental cover to it, but diplomats concede that China would prefer to start uncontroversially and then unveil its full plans.
China’s big worry is the extended lease of the US’s Diego Garcia base, and American moves to deploy submarines in the Malacca Strait despite Malaysia and Indonesia’s refusal to give permission in February, and the certain presence of at least two US submarines in the Taiwan Strait to defend Taiwan against China.
‘No one is certain of Chinese intentions this time,’ a diplomat said. ‘It could be a base the Chinese want, because they want to break out of the growing American stranglehold.’
Sources could not confirm if the Indian government knows about the visit of the PLA-N team to Maldives.
I N T E L L I G E N C E
Maldives to target LTTE
21 July 2004: India and Maldives will exchange information about the movement of LTTE activists in the territorial waters of Maldives in the Indian-Ocean region.
During the SAARC foreign ministers meet in Islamabad, the Maldives foreign minister, Fathuhualla Jameel, assured the Indian external affairs minister, Natwar Singh, that Maldives, though lacking in high-tech patrol boats to intercept LTTE movement in its territorial waters, would take all the necessary steps against the Tamil terrorist organisation.
Intelligence reports suggest that the LTTE is using Maldives and Mauritius to ferry arms, run drug smuggling syndicates, and send illegal migrants to work as spies, and the Maldives police has identified some LTTE operations, but is unable to take any preventive action.
Maldives has a small Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil population who are mostly fishermen.
LTTE activities in Maldives were first revealed in May this year by one of its activists who was arrested by the Indian Coast Guard off Tamil Nadu.
I N T E L L I G E N C E
Govt grappling with intelligence failures
4 September 2004: The government is grappling with the failure of foreign intelligence-gathering in anticipating the assassination attempt on the Bangladesh opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and the cluelessness about the Maoist blockade of Kathmandu and the failed coup in the Maldives, plus the primeministership change in Sri Lanka.
I N T E L L I G E N C E
Gayoom fears UK coup in Maldives
29 March 2005: Fearing an UK-sponsored, opposition-backed coup, Maldives president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has sued for India’s help, during his six-day visit to the country.
While India has counseled Gayoom to bring multi-party democracy in Maldives and release political prisoners arrested in the Male riots of August 2004, it also fears that the UK, in the guise of promoting democracy in the island nation, is positioning itself to establish a military base there.
Officials said that Britain is desperate for a presence in the Indian Ocean region, and so far, it has piggy-backed on US deployments in the Middle East and in South East Asia, and they hinted India would move pro-actively on Gayoom’s SOS as a SAARC member.
China’s base in the Maldives?
China may have clinched a deal with the Maldives to build a naval facility capable of hosting submarines on the island of Marao, 40 km from the capital Male. According to the Israeli website DEBKA, the deal may have been signed and sealed in May this year during Premier Zhu-Rongji’s visit to Male. It will allow China to lease the island for 25 years and develop it, which means jobs for the locals. Pakistan apparently, was instrumental in ‘persuading’ the Maldives to lease the island to the Chinese. The island will be operational in 2010. It’s not clear how India, given its excellent relations with the Maldives, allowed this deal to go through.