Defence minister summoned over Chinese submarine ‘incursion into Maldivian waters’

Defence minister Moosa Ali Jaleel has been summoned to parliament to answer whether a Chinese Yuan class 335 submarine entered Maldivian territorial waters between March 31 and May 22.

Eva Abdulla, an MP with the main opposition Maldivan Democratic Party (MDP), submitted the questions to parliament yesterday. Under parliamentary rules, a 14-day notice must be given for minister’s to appear for questioning.

An Indian newspaper India Today reported on June 27 that “China’s deadliest attack submarine” crossed the Arabian Sea and entered Karachi port on May 22.

The submarine is reportedly equipped with torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and air-independent propulsion.

“Beijing’s first-ever deployment of a submarine to Pakistan signals a new cat-and-mouse game in the region,” India Today observed.

According to the magazine, Indian navy chief Admiral RK Dhowan told reporters in New Delhi on May 28 that India was “minutely” monitoring Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean and “signalled the start of a new great game over the world’s most important water body.”

China’s rising presence in the Indian Ocean region has stoked concerns in New Delhi that the rival Asian power is creating a ‘string of pearls’ to encircle India, including Chinese investments in ports and other key projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The questions submitted by Eva ask the minister if the Chinese submarine was granted leave to enter Maldives’ territorial waters and if the security forces are aware if the submarine had entered the Maldives’ territorial waters without prior permission.

The docking of two Chinese submarines in a Sri Lankan port in November last year sparked concerns in New Delhi. The new Sri Lankan government in February pledged to ensure such incidents will not be repeated.

During an official visit to China last month – his second since assuming office in November 2013 – President Abdulla Yameen declared that Sino-Maldives relations are at an “all-time high” with the establishment of a cooperative partnership between the countries last year.

President Xi Jinping in his historic state visit in September invited the Maldives to “journey with China on the high-speed bullet train to progress and prosperity,” President Yameen said in a keynote address delivered at the opening ceremony of the 10th China-South Asia Business Forum on June 12.

The Maldives has also become one of the first partners in the Chinese ‘Maritime Silk Route’ initiative and a founding member of the Chinese-led new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

In September last year, former President Mohamed Nasheed criticised the decision to join the Silk Route initiative, contending that it would threaten Indian Ocean security.

In January, the Chinese embassy in the Maldives denied Nasheed’s suggestions that the Maldivian government is planning to hand over large parts of Laamu Atoll to China for a military base.

“It is a common knowledge that China pursues a national defense policy that is defensive in nature,” the Chinese embassy said.

“China does not maintain any military in any foreign country”.

The opposition leader had alleged that the Maldives was to hand over large parts of the southern atoll to China for a military base on a 99-year lease, in exchange for US$2 billion.

India Today meanwhile noted that China is planning to sell eight Yuan class submarines to Pakistan within the next few years.

“According to a New York-based Council on Foreign Relations report, Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear programme in the world. Its arsenal, built with the help of Chinese technology, stands at between 100 and 120 warheads, compared with China’s 250 and India with between 90 and 100,” the magazine reported.


Fisheries ministry denies granting permission for Sri Lankan vessels to cross Maldivian waters

The fisheries ministry has denied rumours that the government has granted permission for Sri Lankan vessels to cross Maldivian territorial waters without prior authorisation.

In a press statement yesterday, the ministry assured that the government would not grant any request that could “have an adverse effect on Maldivian fishermen or the fisheries industry, the country’s independence and sovereignty, or the economy.”

Sri Lanka reportedly made the request at the sixth meeting of the Maldives-Sri Lanka Joint Commission on Tuesday (September 9). A delegation including Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr Mohamed Shiny, Education Minister Dr Aishath Shiham, as well as senior officials from various government ministries departed to Colombo earlier this week to attend the meeting.

During an official state visit in January, President Abdulla Yameen agreed to “explore the possibility” of giving innocent passage to Sri Lankan fishing vessels through Maldivian waters under the UN Law of the Sea.


Maritime surveillance system launched with US assistance

A maritime surveillance system to monitor and identify vessels operating within Maldivian territorial waters has been established with the assistance of the US government.

The surveillance system will be used to collect data from seven Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) installed along major Maldives shipping channels and is a commercial system consisting of shore based receivers and transponders.

US Ambassador for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Michele J Sison, spoke at the handover ceremony for the Maritime Surveillance System in Male’ on Thursday.

“As the Maldives seeks to become a greater contributor to maritime security in the region, these systems will increase their capabilities and open up even further opportunities for cooperation with its international and regional partners,” Ambassador Sison said.

The system will greatly enhance Maldives’ maritime domain awareness and increase its contribution to regional maritime safety and security, the US Embassy said in a statement.

“The AIS system provides data used to identify ships and their positions and allows for a common operational picture so that operators may view the information from all of the sensor sites,” the Embassy added.

During the launch ceremony Thursday (January 31) Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim called the system a “major boost to national security” and “the beginning of the many tasks ahead,” reports Haveeru.

Nazim also discussed the importance of “maintaining close ties” with India and Sri Lanka for the protection of Maldivian territorial waters and that the system will benefit neighboring countries in the Indian Ocean, according to local media.

The surveillance system will improve situational awareness by enabling the identification of and communications with vessels operating inside territorial waters, according to Head of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) Communication Electronics Information Technology Service, Lieutenant Tholhath Hassan.

The seven strategic locations for the system include Villi-Male, Uligan Island in Haa Alif Atoll, Maafilaafushi Island in Kaafu Atoll, Kahdhoo Island in Laamu Atoll, Kaadehdhoo Island in Gaaf Alif Atoll, Gan Island in Seenu Atoll, as well as Fuvahmulah Island in Gnaviyani Atoll.


MPs clash over maritime agreement with Sri Lanka

MPs clashed today over a motion without notice calling on the government to terminate a reported agreement with Sri Lanka to allow its vessels passage across Maldivian waters, raising fears of increased illegal fishing in the country’s economic zone.

The motion was proposed by MP Ali Saleem of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) in the wake of reports in the Sri Lankan media about the maritime agreement and contradictory statements by Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi and President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair in the local media yesterday.

“Parliament has to look into what is hidden behind this,” said Saleem in his opening remarks. “Did you know that even if Sri Lankan fishing vessels traveling to the Arabian sea are carrying sharks or fish catch, there is no way to know because of this agreement signed yesterday?”

The motion states that there was room to suspect “the beginning of hidden deals” behind the agreement and asks to clarify which maritime law facilitated the arrangement of vessels informing the Sri Lankan embassy 48 hours in advance to ensure safe passage.

In the ensuing debate, MP ‘Colonel’ Mohamed Nasheed of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) suggested that “it would be better for us to find out accurate information on the matter” if fears of illegal fishing had resulted from misinformation.

DRP MP for Mathiveri Hussein Mohamed called on the government to inform the public  of “measures to protect Maldivian fishing areas and incomes of local fishermen if this [maritime agreement] is going forward.”

DRP MP Ali Arif argued that Maldivian foreign policy should remain “non-aligned” and neutral as “a small authorisation like this” could threaten “hundreds of years of independence.”

“Because the Sri Lankan government authorised many MDP activities in that country before the 2008 election when MDP was formed, I believe this is a gift to them in return for that,” claimed Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ibrahim Muttalib.

The government’s foreign policy was threatening sovereignty and independence, Muttalib continued: “We heard recently that from now on we will vote the way India wants at the UN. This is slavery, this is enslavement,” he said.

MDP MP Mohamed Shifaz meanwhile concurred with other MPs that the Maldives did not have the capacity to monitor foreign fishing vessels. All MDP MPs agreed with the consensus view that unmonitored illegal fishing posed dangers to the local fishing industry.

DRP MP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali noted that Sri Lankan trawlers had been found fishing illegally in Maldivian waters in the recent past.

“And it is a fact accepted by all our fishermen that our country, our government, does not have the capacity to identify, locate and stop foreign vessels illegally fishing in our seas,” he said, warning that the new maritime agreement would further complicate monitoring of the economic zone.

Thasmeen added that Sri Lankan fishing vessels were known to engage in shark fishing, which results in dwindling fish stocks.

There must be “broad consensus” before such a maritime agreement was signed, the opposition leader said.

MDP MP for Billedhoo Ahmed Hamza however pointed out that previous government in 1982 had acceded to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, which stipulates that foreign vessels must be granted passage across territorial waters for sea travel.

While the convention allowed “innocent passage,” said Hamza, fishing by such vessels was strictly prohibited.

Hamza urged MPs to continue the debate after seeking official documentation to determine whether the maritime agreement with Sri Lanka was required by the UN convention.

“Why are we concerned about passage across Maldivian waters? [Because] we are talking about at least 424 nautical miles [of territory from the shore],” said DRP MP for Kelaa Dr Abdulla Mausoom.

While innocent passage was not an issue, said Mausoom, “history shows for certain” that Sri Lankan vessels would fish in Maldivian waters as trawlers from the neighbouring country had been detained by the authorities in the past.

MDP MP Ilyas Labeeb meanwhile accused the previous government of “selling the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone]” to enrich senior officials of the regime.

“We do not want to do anything that could harm Maldivian fishermen,” he said. “Before this government, fishermen got Rf3 or Rf4 for a kilo of fish. Now fishermen are glad that they get Rf20 or Rf30 [for a kilo].”