China's 'covert' Maldives observatory raises red flags in India, poses threat to safety and freedom of Indian Ocean sea lanes

The Maldives-China bonhomie has raised fresh security challenges for India's maritime security with Maldives opposition reportedly claiming that "China's Joint Observation Station in the Maldives is likely to have military capabilities along with provisions for a submarine base".

Political sources in Male, as quoted in a Times Of India article, said that "the observatory, located in Makunudhoo, the westernmost atoll in the north (not far from India), will allow the Chinese a vantage point of an important Indian Ocean shipping route through which many merchant and other ships pass".

 Chinas covert Maldives observatory raises red flags in India, poses threat to safety and freedom of Indian Ocean sea lanes

File image of Chinese President Xi Jinping. AFP

A  protocol on the establishment of a ‘Joint Ocean Observation Station’ was signed between the Maldives environment ministry and China’s State Oceanic Administration when the Maldives president Abdulla Yameen had visited China for the first time in December 2017.

Location matters

The Makunudhoo island in the Maldives where China is building the observatory is part of the northern-most tip of the archipelago nation. The Makunudhoo island is, worryingly, not only close to the northern sea line of communication — running between India's Minicoy island and the Maldives northern-most atolls — but also to India's South and South West coast.

The observatory, therefore, poses a threat to the security, safety, and freedom of sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean region.

As a Firspost analysis had revealed earlier, China is investing heavily in infrastructural projects in the Maldives, and already owns islands in the archipelago nation. According to exiled Maldivian leader Mohammed Nasheed, 16-17 small islands have been seized by the Chinese. So, it's only a matter of time when Beijing begins asserting its presence similar to the disputed South China Sea.

Worryingly, this observatory is very similar to the one China announced for the disputed South China Sea last year.

Interestingly, the Maldives observatory is an integral part of Beijing's "String of Pearls" encircling India, along with the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Gwadar port in Pakistan.

Defence analyst Major Gaurav Arya writes on Twitter: "This Joint Ocean Observation Station in the Maldives is clearly dual purpose. The last thing China wants to do is study ocean currents. This station allows them to 'peek into' our South and South Western coast. The dragon is wagging its tail."

The "covert, dual-purpose underwater observatory in the Maldives", claims  Brahma Chellaney, Indian strategist, would allow it to collect data to deploy submarines in the Indian Ocean Region.

At this point, the question for India, as Mohan Guruswamy argued in the Deccan Chronicle is, India is faced with the dilemma "whether to deal with this issue now, when it has the means to enforce its will on the Maldives, and as former President Nasheed has entreated it to do, or continue with its traditional policy of not overtly intervening in the internal affairs of other countries" and risk allowing China to continue expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean Region and that too at a "frenetic pace".

However, it may be little premature to say that India has been sleeping, while China has been building.

With China's military activities in the disputed South China Sea coming under severe criticism from Japan as well as the US, the re-emergence of the India-Australia-Japan-US quad and strengthening its ties with ASEAN countries including the reverse "String of Pearls" in Vietnam could go a long way in containing China's aggressive stance to control sea lanes in the disputed South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean Region.

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2018 16:43:56 IST