India defends its backyard in the Indian Ocean: Wall Street Journal

“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.

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Maldives, India and Sri Lanka conduct joint naval exercises

The Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka are to hold joint naval exercises over the next five days, according to the official website of the Sri Lankan Navy. The exercises, labelled “DOSTI – XI”, will be carried out in Maldivian waters.

The operations are being caried out with the aim of “strengthening bonds of friendship and enhancing mutual operational capability and cooperation. The exercise will focus on Maritime Search and Rescue, Marine Pollution Response and Boarding Operations,” the website says.

“Due to its geo-strategic significance, it is important for the Coast Guards of the three friendly countries to ensure the safety and security of the Indian Ocean for all sea-farers. The mutually beneficial exercise, therefore, will pay the way for launching coordinated efforts in times of crisis,” the site continues.

Maldives’ Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim visited India at the start of this month to discuss opportunities for greater military cooperation between the two South Asian nations.


Gaza flotilla begins controversial journey despite sabotage allegations and UN concerns

A flotilla of ships hoping to breach an Israeli naval blockade to deliver cargo they claim contains vital aid and support for Palestinian territories has begun its journey from the Mediterranean Sea this week.

The commencement of the flotilla’s journey comes just over a year after several members of a similar fleet of vessels were killed and injured after clashes with Israel’s military last year.

The Al Jazeera news agency reported yesterday that despite Israeli claims that latest the ten vessel “Freedom Flotilla II” was a “dangerous provocation” by organisers that would be intercepted accordingly, ships were now making their journey to the city of Gaza amidst alleged attempts to apparently sabotage individual vessels such as the Swedish ship Juliano in Greek waters.

Israel’s attempts to block the flotilla, which military officials have told media reflects fears that the ships could be used to smuggle weapons into Palestine, has proved to be increasingly controversial topic in international diplomacy.

While Israel was condemned by numerous states over its suppression of a similar fleet in 2010, the UN has called on flotilla organisers to cancel their plans, requesting for a focus instead on using legitimate channels to supply aid to the country. The organisation has additionally called for more direct action from Israel to cut restrictions it has imposed on Gaza.

The Maldives was amongst the nations that were openly critical of the Israeli military response last year to the original “Freedom Flotilla” that reportedly led to nine people being killed aboard the MV Mavi Marmara vessel during an assault in international waters. An estimated 60 activists and 10 Israeli soldiers were also injured in the scuffles that the Maldives’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned “in the strongest possible terms”.

Israeli fears

Reporting today for the Washington Post, Joel Greenberg wrote that Israeli officials were believed to have stepped up the intensity of their attempts to discredit the organisers of the latest flotilla with claims that the ships’ crews were openly waiting to attack any troops working to intercept their vessels.

“On Tuesday, Israeli newspapers were filled with reports from unnamed military officials, charging that sacks of chemicals, including sulfur, had been loaded onto flotilla vessels with the aim of using the materials against Israeli soldiers,” Greenberg wrote in the paper.

The report claimed that some sections of local media were using headlines such as “Coming to Kill” alongside pictures of some of the vessels in the Flotilla in their coverage.

To counteract these fears, military officials have pledged to prevent the flotilla’s vessels from reaching Gaza and not ruled out the use of unspecified “force” in their aims.

Certain high profile figures believed to be aboard the flotilla have continued to stress that they are planning the trip as a non-violent protest against foreign policy pursued by Israeli forces.  Last week, the UK-based Guardian newspaper published an interview with American writer Alice Walker, who claimed that she would be taking part in the flotilla as a passenger on the vessel, the Audacity of Hope, to deliver letters of goodwill to the people of Gaza. Israeli opposition to the ships, which Walker claimed was effectively the equivalent of attacking a mailman, would be an act that would be recorded “hilariously” in history.

“Why am I going on the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza? I ask myself this, even though the answer is: what else would I do? I am in my 67th year, having lived already a long and fruitful life, one with which I am content,” she wrote. “It seems to me that during this period of eldering it is good to reap the harvest of one’s understanding of what is important, and to share this, especially with the young. How are they to learn, otherwise?”

However, in the realms of international diplomacy, support for the flotilla has proved to be much more of a dilemma.

Diplomatic dilemmas

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last month raised concerns about plans for a second “Freedom Flotilla” to sail to Gaza asking numerous governments based around the Mediterranean Sea to avoid encouraging the provision of aid through the flotilla. Ban claimed that Israel was being urged to end its closure of Gaza, with legitimate crossings to the country needed to ensure civilians in the strip were adequately supplied.

“The Secretary-General reiterated that, while he believed that flotillas were not helpful in resolving the basic economic problems in Gaza, the situation there remains unsustainable,” the UN said in a statement.

The international organisation has itself established a separate panel of inquiry that it has said was designed to look at the conduct of Israel’€™s military in response to the flotilla sailing to Gaza last year. The working period for the group was extended earlier this year after its four members decided more time was needed to reach an outcome.

Isreal’s blockade of Palestinian territories was imposed back in 2007 over security fears at the democratic election of a government consisting of members of the Hamas group, which do not recognize the country’s right to exist. Both Hamas and the Fatah movement it ousted are now said to have agreed to form a unified government ahead of fresh elections, according to the UN.

Last year, the UN secretary general openly criticized the legality of Israel’s blockade of Palestinian borders asking for a cessation to the policy, despite the country making amendments allowing foodstuffs and certain other civilian goods to pass. Ban reportedly lambasted the Israeli policy of closure as “wrong” as well as being unsustainable whilst talking to international media during a visit to Palestinian territory last March.