Livefist is privileged to announce that we start a special series today by COLONEL (RETD) VINAYAK BHAT (@RajFortySeven), a veteran military satellite imagery specialist. Each of Bhat’s columns, starting with today’s on Chinese activity in Maldives, will offer an insightful deep-dive on activity by India’s neighbours in the neighbourhood, providing a sharp, visual data-driven and incisive view of the region and how it’s changing.
Maldives is archipelago republic of 1190 islands’ chain approximately 130km South of Minicoy Islands of India in the IOR. The early settlers to these islands were Dravidians who were later joined by Sinhalese, Siddis and Austronesians. Dhivehi – the national language which sounds like a mix between Malayalam and Sinhalese.
Maldives came onto the radar of Indian foreign policy when Male was attacked by Sri Lankan Tamil militant group in November 1988. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom requested India for help. Promptly, Indian troops were sent to the rescue of the Maldives government and the coup attempt was brought under control and peace restored. The Operation Cactus was a great success appreciated throughout the world. The action by India brought to fore the quick reaction capability by the Para Regiment and IAF who landed on a militant controlled airport in the thick of the night without proper maps or navigation. The relations with India gained strength and became strong.
Chinese interest in Maldives started in 2009 after President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30 years reign came to an end. The diplomatic relations with India took a drastic turn when elected President Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign and Mohammed Waheed, an unkown personality until then, took over as the President. Nasheed had pro-India leanings which were possibly not liked by the Chinese. The Male International Airport expansion contract to an Indian company GMR, Delhi came under scrutiny and was scrapped, without attributing any particular shortcomings, by the Waheed government.
Maldives thrives on tourism and fishing industries. Since 2009, the Maldives tourism has taken a new turn. Chinese government has pursued the policy of subsidising air travel to certain countries of its interest.1 Thus, China is actually controlling tourism in Maldives to pressurise the Maldivian government. The numbers are manipulated and news controlled to give varying impressions to tourists.3 Some of the misconceptions were addressed by a few news media in Maldives.
In 2013, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, became President. The country has been in political turmoil since then. All political opponents of Yameen were put behind bars including the Vice President, Defence Minister etc. Many like the Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, supposedly the most influential lady in Maldives, also resigned without assigning reasons.
The GMR’s arbitration case in International Tribunal for compensation of $270 million for cancellation of contract has been settled by payment through a mysterious “foreign investor” read “China”.
Now the contract for expansion of Male airport has been officially given to China along with a road bridge between Male and Hulumale. The real deals in the contract are unknown as it has not been made public.
An effort has been made to read the Chinese infrastructure development activities in Maldives through satellite imagery from Google Earth (GE) and Digital Globe (DG).
The DG image of March 18, 2017 shows the reclamations being carried out East of the present airstrip in Male airport and Northern portion of Hulumale. The reclamation East of Male airport (size L=2.5km, W=200m) is obviously for the second airstrip and other administrative complex. The Northern portion of Hulumale with reclaimed area of approximately 650acres is probably construction of residential complex. Similar complex was earlier constructed by Tata Constructions for the Maldives government.
The most important development observed is the road bridge between Male and Hulumale. The bridge of approximately 8m width is being constructed from SE point on Male island near Tsunami memorial to the Southern tip of Hulumale airport. The entire open space in front of the Family Court has been handed over to the Chinese for storage of construction material.
It is most likely, that just as in case of Sri Lanka, even the Maldives government has sold off this reclaimed land and toll collection rights of the road bridge to the Chinese. There is no other way a foreign investor would pay up $148 million to GMR.
Secret Construction Runway
China has been planning to construct a base with an airport and a submarine port in Maldives. The plans have never been made public. The airstrip construction has been mentioned in many local media newspapers off and on since last 4-5 years. The location has always been kept a closely guarded secret and never revealed.
But few things remain secret from satellites. The GE imagery of April 24, 2016 and October 06, 2016 show clear indications of an airstrip being constructed on Kudahuvadhoo island on Dhaalu Atoll. This airstrip is reportedly being built with Dutch help, but could potentially be open to Chinese use.
An area of more than 350 acres has been reclaimed. An airstrip of 2 km in length is being constructed. The grading work of approximately 32 meters width is being done at a feverish pace. This suggests the airstrip would be 30m in width. There are large numbers of tetrapods and other construction material along with major engineering vehicles observed. A strong tetrapod wall is being constructed on the Northern side of reclaimed area.
There are two small dredgers observed NW of the reclaimed area with direct pipelines to the airstrip suggesting a possible naval port may be under construction.
These infrastructure development activities possibly by China, or open to Chinese assets, very close to Indian borders is a worrying development. This airport along with a naval facility if permitted to be used as a Chinese base would effectively close a noose around India in the IOR. It would eventually complete India’s encirclement with other bases being prepared at Seychelles, Gwadar, Karachi, Colombo, Hambantota, Coco Island and Sittwe. Last year, Maldives sold the Feydhoo Finolhu island to China.
India should make serious efforts to stop these construction activities. A strong message needs to be sent to the Chinese and these island nations that such activities would hamper good relations with India. Until then, keep monitoring these activities.