After gift return India calls Maldives bluff on Dornier
NEW DELHI: Behind the facade of its stated India First policy, the Abdulla Yameen regime in the Maldives continues to run circles around the Indian government. Taken aback by reports in the past few days from Male that Maldives wanted a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft from India, top South Block sources told TOI that the letter of exchange (LoE) for deployment of Dornier in the archipelago had actually been pending with the Yameen government since 2016.
"Formal acceptance of the offer through the LoE by Male is the first step to initiate the process for construction of hanger and deployment of Dornier but they have chosen to sit over it for 2 years," said a top government official requesting anonymity.
Calling out Male for what they described as its duplicitous nature, official sources here said the talk about the need for a Dornier aircraft was nothing but a fig leaf intended to candy-coat Male's decision to get rid of an Indian naval chopper + which was gifted by the Indian government.
The reports from Male followed TOI's exclusive report on April 5 that the Maldives had refused to renew the LoE for one of the 2 Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) which India had gifted to Male. TOI had quoted a top Maldives official as saying that Male had not renewed the LoE because it wanted a Dornier from India.
Top government sources revealed to TOI that the Yameen government had not just refused to renew the LoE for the ALH operating from Addu atoll but had also not responded to an advance offer by India to renew the LoE for the other ALH based in Laamu atoll. This effectively means that Male wants both Indian choppers out.
Developments in Maldives cause of concern: Pentagon
The LoE for the Laamu chopper expires this month and while India had offered to renew it in January this year, Male has not responded to it yet. It's at Laamu, one of the southernmost atolls, where the Chinese are said to be considering building a port. This location is significant because, as TOI said in a report in April 2016, it sits at the entrance to the one-and-a-half degree channel, a major international shipping passage passing through the Maldives.
For India, complete opacity and lack of sincerity on the part of Maldives on almost all major bilateral issue has seriously undermined, as a source put it, the traditional trust and consultation-based relationship built over the past five decades.
The government at the highest level has been stunned by the desperation shown by the Maldives in wanting to remove Indian choppers. In naval parlance, the Dhruv ALH is known as a little bird which requires minimal space. There's little maintenance cost involved for Maldives and the Gan Airport In Addu is big and underutilized. A report in the Maldivian media said that the presence of Indian naval personnel along with the chopper had become a "source of irritation" for the local government.
The desperation has naturally led to speculation within the Indian establishment that the Chinese might have had a role in this. Addu is also strategically located at Equatorial Channel and close to Diego Garcia.
"Is there some shady, strategic deal, possiblly disguised as a commercial, dual purpose activity, by Yameen with Chinese? Maybe the Chinese want the area cleared of any trace of Indian footprint in Addu," said a top Indian official.
It is also worth mentioning here that the Dornier cannot do all work done by an ALH and that it may not even be suitable for the Maldives. For example, it can't land on a small island without a proper runway. It also can't stand still in air to pick up patients or rescue people drowning in ocean.
"Dornier is good, may be better than ALH for EEZ surveillance, but not for the humanitarian search and rescue and medical evacuation which benefits the people directly," said a naval source.