Maldives and its Centrality to the Indian Ocean Region

Maldives’ geography explains its strategic importance. The 960 km long submarine ridge below provides only two SLOCs for all sea traffic from the Gulf of Aden and Straits of Hormuz in the West to Malacca Straits in the East, and that too within the maritime borders of Maldives, which makes it a Toll Gate for these passages. Its central location between other island territories of Seychelles, Mauritius, Diego Garcia, Lakshadweep, and Sri Lanka further enhances its strategic value.

Till about a decade ago, India enjoyed an unchallenged sway in this region, as there was no clash of interest. However, expanding Chinese commercial and strategic interests changed the security dynamics. China acquired a Logistic Base in Djibouti. In Myanmar, China took control over Kyaukpyu port, a commercial maritime port that can be doubled as a military facility and set up a naval intelligence unit at Coco Islands. Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Feydhoo Finolhu (Maldives) were acquired as commercial bases on long lease. Gwadar (Pakistan) was pocketed as part of BRI. Additional facilities on the African eastern seaboard started appearing as China was in the process of acquiring and/or constructing numerous dual use port facilities. With growing Chinese ambitions, aggressiveness, capabilities and reach, India was seriously challenged in the IOR.

China had virtually completed its String of Pearls theory.

This did not happen overnight. The writing was on the wall. China was building a blue water Navy and enhancing its capability to maintain its permanent presence in the IOR. For India, Maldives has been an unfortunate case of missing the boat.

The Chinese investment in the Maldives is a subject of concern. First to be leased was Feydhoo Finolhu, a tiny islet just 0.5 square miles, strategically located just 3 nautical miles from the Maldivian capital and the international airport. The next was Kunaavashi, an atoll 35 nautical miles from Malé. China’s largest, and most visible, infrastructure projects in the Maldives have been on the capital island of Malé and adjacent Hulhumalé. The two most important projects have been the expansion of the International Airport and the construction of the Sinamale bridge connecting it to Hulhumalé. Beijing Urban Construction Group signed a deal to expand the Velana International Airport in 2014, displacing India’s GMR which previously held the contract. There are several others which are on the anvil including the Makunudhoo Observatory.

However, much as we may wish away these developments as mere commercial ventures, their intent is visible to even those who cannot see. For India, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the countries located in the region including the Maldives are of strategic importance and part of its sphere of influence. A military base in the Maldives would tilt the geopolitical balance towards China. The geographical location of Feydhoo Islands poses a direct threat to Indian security and freedom of movement in the Indian Ocean. If established, the Chinese military base would be 900 km away from Minicoy and 1000 km from the Indian mainland. Such a military facility could be developed to dock warships and nuclear submarines amongst other maritime usages. As of now, it is believed, that Beijing has taken over 17 islands in Maldives as commercial projects. In case China does decide to convert one/them into a military base(s), Maldives can do nothing to stop it.

Male-Hulhumale Link Road

The Indian Ocean has the potential to become the new theatre of conflict between India and China. Already engaged in the Ladakh, Arunachal and Sikkim, Maldives could be the next location for a standoff between them.

What can India do, under these circumstances? There is an immediate need for long term strategic thinking, starting as well from immediate as well as short term. India needs to catch the boat and develop strategic naval facilities not only in Andamans but also in Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Mauritius. But the Defence outlay has been steadily reducing and stands at a low percentage of GDP. With the maritime front poised to gain more importance in the future, it is imperative that the government considers an increase in defence allocations and reprioritizes inter sea importance of defence projects with an aim to strengthen the capabilities at sea. The Indian Naval fleet of ships and submarines needs to cross the 200 mark earliest. Given that the number of ships being commissioned is less than those decommissioned, it seems unlikely that we would be able to meet that target, unless off course a major course correction is made. The capability gaps are slowly increasing in other spheres too.

In the interim, we should use the QUAD to ensure that the Chinese navy remains embroiled in the Pacific while we develop the requisite capability. Japan on the other hand can help us with finances and Australia juxtaposes its maritime capability to pose a threat to China.

It was as early as 1968 that the UK/US combine felt the need of naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Thus, Diego Garcia came into being as a joint US/UK military base. The atoll is located 1,796 km south-southwest of Kanyakumari and 739 km south of Addu Atoll (the southernmost atoll of Maldives). We could have learnt something there!!

Serious investments are needed into our maritime security, new alignments that have been secured with like minded partners need to be forged as strategic deterrents, countries in the neighbourhood must be advised not to act against our security, which cannot be overlooked. It does not help any of the nations to become centres of big power rivalry, best is to retain the region for peace and prosperity.


Maj Gen VK Singh, VSM was commissioned into The Scinde Horse in Dec 1983. The officer has commanded an Independent Recce Sqn in the desert sector, and has the distinction of being the first Armoured Corps Officer to command an Assam Rifles Battalion in Counter Insurgency Operations in Manipur and Nagaland, as well as the first General Cadre Officer to command a Strategic Forces Brigade. He then commanded 12 Infantry Division (RAPID) in Western Sector. The General is a fourth generation army officer.

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