India pips China, inks deal to develop, support, maintain harbour at naval base in Maldives

India elbowed China out and sides agreed on the terms of reference with Maldives for the project in September 2019
Last Updated 21 February 2021, 21:31 IST

India on Sunday signed an agreement with the Maldives to “develop, support and maintain” a harbour at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in the island nation.

Though the new harbour is being built officially for the use of Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard, it is likely to turn into a strategic asset for India and give it an edge over China, which has been trying to spread its tentacles in the Indian Ocean region.

The agreement was signed as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had a meeting with Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi before concluding his two-day visit to Malé on. The Government of Maldives and the EXIM Bank India also signed another agreement for $50 million Line of Credit for defence projects in the archipelago.

“Glad to sign with Defence Minister @MariyaDidi the UTF (Uthuru Thila Falhu) Harbour Project agreement. Will strengthen Maldivian Coast Guard capability and facilitate regional HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) efforts. Partners in development, partners in security,” Jaishankar posted on Twitter. Mariya Didi noted that defence cooperation had been a “key element” of the “sisterly relationship” between that existed between India and Maldives. “The Coast Guard Harbour & (and) Dockyard at SIFAVARU will mark another significant milestone,” she added.

A joint statement issued by the two sides noted that the agreement on building the harbour had been signed “pursuant to the request the Government of Maldives made in April 2013 for support and cooperation of the Government of India to assist the Government of Maldives for enhancing the capability of the Defence Forces of the Maldives in exercising jurisdiction and undertaking maritime surveillance of its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and islands; and subsequent requests made in October 2015 and March 2016”.

Beijing was also purportedly interested in building the harbour for the Coast Guard of Maldives. China however could not make any headway after Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the November 2018 elections and took over as President of Maldives, succeeding Abdullah Yameen. India finally elbowed China out and the both sides agreed on the terms of reference for the project in September 2019.

The erstwhile government of Abdullah Yameen had leased out to China the Feydhoo Finolhu islet of Maldives for 50 years in December 2016. It had raised alarms in New Delhi, particularly after satellite images in December 2017 had revealed dredging and landfill works done to expand the islet, ostensibly by the company based in China.

Solih and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2019 also inaugurated the Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems, which India installed in the islands of Maldives. Though the network of radar systems New Delhi helped Male set up in the islands are officially meant to help the Indian Ocean archipelago safeguard its sovereignty in its EEZ, it also helps Indian Navy keep eyes over the Indian Ocean region, where Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy have been foraying into.

Jaishankar, who is here on a two-day visit, held discussions with Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi.

(Published 21 February 2021, 09:18 IST)

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