“The whole world is watching China’s confrontations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea—but India is watching with particular concern,” Harsh V. Pant, a defence studies professor for King’s College, London, writes for the Wall Street Journal.
“India has no territorial claims here per se, but one Indian official recently said that the South China Sea could be seen ‘as the antechamber of the Indian Ocean,’ given the flow of maritime traffic. New Delhi is nervous about Beijing’s threat to the freedom of navigation, and this is one reason it is strengthening ties with island nations in the Indian Ocean.
This month, Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony travelled to the Maldives to shore up relations with the young democracy. He was ostensibly there to inaugurate a military hospital built with Indian assistance, but New Delhi used the occasion to make a slew of defence-related announcements.
Chiefly, Delhi will begin training Maldives’ air force and position a naval team in the islands to train Maldivian naval personnel. Mr Antony also said India would station a defence attaché in its Maldivian embassy, extend the deployment of a helicopter squadron in the islands for two more years, and help the Maldives government in its surveillance of its Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends for 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores.
All these take defence cooperation up to the next level. More importantly, they underscore India’s continuing commitment to Maldives, despite a somewhat contentious transfer of power earlier this year when its first democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed resigned under pressure when protests broke out against him. Some saw this as a coup, but India isn’t taking sides. Some of this is sheer agnosticism on Delhi’s part—it doesn’t want to interfere in another nation’s internal affairs—but a lot of it is realpolitik too.