The UTF harbour project has been signed after eight years of its announcement on 21st Feb 2020 during the two-day visit of Minister of External Affairs of India, S. Jaishankar. The member states of the agreement, India and The Maldives collectively aim to develop and maintain a coastguard harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu – a geo-strategic location situated atoll near Maldivian capital Malé. Along with this major development, S. Jaishankar also announced a line of credit worth $50 Million for defense projects.

Indian Navy Project in Maldives At Uthuru Thilafalhu

The signed agreement aims to ‘develop, support and maintain’ a harbour at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in Maldives. Though the harbour is officially built for the use of Maldives defense agencies, the geographic position of the location can turn into a strategic asset for India, especially now when India and China are in intense conditions. Therefore, constructing a harbour for Maldives would strengthen the bilateral relations with India and furthermore, secure the Indian Ocean region which China is trying to spread its tentacles at.

The agreement was signed between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Maldivian Defense Minister Mariya Didi during the Indian Ministers’ two-day visit to Malé. The $50 million lines of credit is facilitated by the EXIM Bank of India in association with the Government of Maldives. Furthermore, another $50 million line of credit was lent for the defense projects in the archipelago.

A joint statement issued by the two sides noted that the agreement on building the harbour had been signed “pursuant to the request the Government of Maldives made in April 2013 for support and cooperation of the Government of India to assist the Government of Maldives for enhancing the capability of the Defense Forces of The Maldives in exercising jurisdiction and undertaking maritime surveillance of its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and islands; and subsequent requests made in October 2015 and  March  2016.”

China’s Similar Intent

It is further interesting to note that the capital of China, Beijing, was also purportedly interested in building the harbour for the Coast Guard of Maldives. However, Beijing could not make any progress in this regard as Mohammad Solih won the 2018 Presidential elections. Solih’s predecessor Abdullah Yameen was a close Chinese ally and was also imprisoned for leading the island country to debt as it failed to repay the loans from China. The harrowing instance of Abdullah Yameen’s debacles during his presidential tenure enabled India to finally elbow China out and the deal was signed in 2019.

The bilateral relations between India and The Maldives have been steady post-2018. Solih and Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems in 2019, which India installed in the islands of Maldives. The Surveillance System was meant to help the Indian Ocean archipelago safeguard its sovereignty in its Exclusive Economic Zone and also aimed to help the Indian Navy keep an eye over the Indian Ocean region, where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has been foraying into.

India’s Interest in the Project

India took interest in setting up a UTF dockyard long back in 2014. India’s foreign secretary Sujatha Singh took a short trip to The Maldives wherein she also scrambled upon the Uthuru Thilafalhu. To her surprise, Sujatha realised the importance of the project as she was escorted by high-powered officials which even included the Chief of The Maldives defense forces and Defense Minister of Maldives. Post Sujatha Singh’s trip, Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh also took a dedicated trip to the project site in May 2014. However, while India was attracted to the notion of developing a naval base in the Maldives, no formal offer from India to build a dockyard at UTF was received by the Maldives.

With President Yameen’s expressive inclination towards China and its Belt and Road project, India was a bit dismayed by Maldivian conduct. The authoritative conduct of Yameen was attested by his own actions like arresting his own defense minister on terror changes or arbitrary actions in the Commonwealth circuit which eventually led them to steer away from The Maldives in a more democratic nation, further creating animosity between Indian and Maldives.

Contradictory to the Commonwealth’s portrayal of Maldives, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s negative outlook of The Maldives forced the Maldivian President to the shores of India in seek of help and image cleansing, hence strengthening the bilateral relations. It was against this backdrop that India got the opportunity to sign the first formal defense agreement with the Maldives.

The defense agreement was called The Action Plan on Defense Cooperation which enlisted a number of proposals for implementation – ranging from coastal surveillance radars to hydrography survey and capacity building. The agreement can now be looked at as an inception point of the current UTF deal.

The 2016 Action Plan between the two countries stated that India shall “partner” with the Maldives at Uthuru Thilafalhu for “setting up dockyard facilities and other facilities for the Maldivian Defense Forces”. The agreement also added that the Indian Navy shall be allowed to use the infrastructure facilities set up in the Maldives. As a result, the deal proved to be a silver lining between the two states, and the same was mentioned by Prime Minister Modi in 2016 in his public remarks. In President Yameen’s gracious presence, the Indian Prime Minister stated that both the countries shall jointly develop port-related facilities at Uthuru Thilafalhu.

Present Day Situation

Along with the standalone event of signing the agreement, the talks between the two Ministers also shed light on a few other plans which are to be carried out in the near future. In addition to the UTF harbour deal, India has also decided to support the development of other infrastructure, communications resources, and radar services at Uthuru Thila Falhu and would also provide extensive training to the Maldivian personnel in order to improve their efficiency. A joint statement also enlightened the general public of the fact that in furtherance of several requests by the Maldives since 2013, India would also support in enhancing the capability of its defense forces to monitor and surveil the island country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Not only did the Indian Minister of External Affairs stay restricted to his talks with the defense minister, but also held a joint meeting with Maldives’ finance minister Ibrahim Ameer, National Planning Minister Mohammad Aslam, and Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail to review various infrastructure projects already being undertaken in The Maldives with Indian assistance.

The Maldives has been one of the biggest beneficiaries under “India’s Neighbourhood First” policy as the island country is backed with major infrastructure projects with two active lines of credit worth $1.2 billion. India also extended budgetary support of $250 million last year to help The Maldives to cope during the Covid crisis as the island runs on revenues from tourism, and since the same faced a huge downfall, India stepped in to support the economic crippling. Furthermore, India also handed over 100,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines as a grant, in addition to the previous 100,000 doses provided in the last month.

India is counting on its ally, the Maldives, to lend territorial more than militaria support during the time of a probable war. As China is inching closer to India, intruding into India’s territory, the UTF harbour project in the Maldives would not only densify the bond but also provide the Indian Navy, a good geo-strategic point to surveil and monitor the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Navy is welcome to operate on Maldivian infrastructures in return of a piecemeal training exercise to Maldivian defense forces and therefore this agreement appears to be a great benefactor to India from both economic and strategic points of view.