For years Maldives has maintained its position regarding the boundary conflict it has with neighboring Mauritius, claiming the former’s decision to vote against the 2019 International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion has never been about supporting colonizers to maintain their colonial control – but rather it was always tied to the fears over Maldives possibly having to relinquish territorial control from part of its border, specifically by the disputed line.
An issue that had found consensus among experts in the field as well as a former Attorney General who had played an instrumental role related to the matter years back.
Mauritius had earlier filed for a boundary demarcation case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) against the Maldives, which intensified back in October 2022. It was later revealed by the current Maldives Attorney General, that prior to this intensification, Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih sent a letter to Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, apparently informing of a drastic shift of policy change from the Maldivian state regarding Mauritius claiming Chagos Islands as part its administrative territory. Despite clarification of the nature of the letter, it did not improve the situation within the Maldivian political arena. Several parties critical of the incumbent administration mounted allegations that state has complied to Mauritius over relinquishing part of its territorial waters.
Meanwhile, multiple parties have urged the government to publicize the contents of this contentious letter. Maldives Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla Shahid recently revealed just two sentences out of the entire letter, when he said;
Ever since Attorney General Ibrahim Riffath revealed information about Maldives President’s letter to Mauritius at the ITLOS case, many prominent political figures pointed fingers of allegation at the country’s government.
While these recent revelations opened a new can of worms for the Maldives government, there still are a few unanswered questions. Questions for which no definitive answer has been provided with – things that have not been talked about. First of all, what was the nature of the discussions between Maldives and Mauritius, that led to the former’s decision for such a drastic shift in their policy to suddenly support the latter’s claim of Chagos Islands as part of theirs? Were there discussions held with the security council regarding the matter? And, was this letter the result of an abrupt change of heart of the Maldives President?
Answers to these can be found only after we distance ourselves from apparent anecdotes over the possibility of Maldivians ever living in Chagos Islands at some point in history, or from whether or not King Hassan, during Maldivian sultanate era, sent out a letter requesting parts of the atoll be transferred under Maldivian administrative territory.
Delving deeper into multilateral ties between Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and India as well as the intensifying India-China geopolitical issues within the Indian Ocean, and through a thorough assessment of the strategic economic activities in the region could provide these answers.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in a statement confirmed the European behemoth was changing its policies tied to Chagos Islands, and will enter active discussions with Mauritius to transfer rights of the atolls to Mauritius. Earlier, British Prime Minister for just forty-five days, Liz Truss met with a delegation of Mauritian officials during early October 2022 in New York, where they came to the arrangement to resolve the Chagos Islands administrative issue by early 2023. The British were worried about its deteriorating Indo-Pacific relations, which it attempted to rectify with its decision to transfer rights of the archipelago to Mauritius.
Whenever a country had attempted to claim lands as part of their own, which were already part of a colonial power, history is proof that most of the time, it ended in bloody warfare and colossal loss of lives.
So why would a powerful country such as the United Kingdom suddenly concede to Mauritius’ claim over the Chagos Islands?
India understands, that in order to implement the Indo-Pacific strategies, it needs to maintain its relation with the Maldives. Something India always understood intimately. Should this relation deteriorate, India stands to experience what it did some four years back when the then Maldivian government cozied to China rather than its South-Asian ally. A repetition of this would once again endanger India’s control in its own "backyard".
Another crucial fact India acknowledges is the geographically blessed location of the Maldivian islands, covering an area of 90,000 square-kilometers in the Indian Ocean. This island nation is situated in a strategic location, lying right in the middle of the busiest maritime trade route.
“Even if Maldivian leaders were never able to capitalize on this route, its potentiality has been intimately analyzed and researched by countries like the US, India and even China – they attempt to gain benefits for themselves from this route. India can gain control in the area by gaining control on the Maldives, should this route eventually go to the hands of another party then we might see similar disruptions that we observed with the Suez Canal,” a geopolitical analyst opined.
India’s most competitor vying for the region, China, announced its Belt and Road Initiative – a key strategic plan under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration. This initiative presents a considerable challenge and perhaps even, a threat to the Indian government in their continued efforts to gain a near autonomous control on the ocean which is named after it.
Maldives is integral to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, given the historically famous Silk Route passes by the island nation; meaning that back and forth trading traversing in between the region must pass through, or by the tropical archipelago’s territory.
To ensure its Belt and Road Initiative proceeds without hiccups, China is alleged of placing strategic debt traps for countries it assists by means of large-scale infrastructure development projects, often funded by them under loans or grants. When the debtor is hindered in its efforts to repay the loan, China is able to move into a significant territory of the debtor’s land – an example of this is Sri Lanka’s Hambantota International Port.
Meanwhile, several western countries and their experts believe Maldives owes over 70 percent of its foreign debt to China; meaning that the East-Asian giant can move to claim lands from the Maldives in an eventuality where the island nation is found itself unable to pay its foreign debts owed to China.
Several international relation and geopolitical experts observe that if China’s control on the Indian Ocean grows stronger, or should the relation between it and Maldives strengthen further, it poses dangerous possibilities tied to Diego Garcia; which is of both strategic and military importance for the UK and the US. Such a scenario will only play against the policies of both the UK and India.
“UK conceding to comply with Mauritius over granting them Chagos Islands as part of their territory, so easily might perhaps be UK’s attempts to keep its Indo-Pacific relations healthy. Right now, everything is revolving in a manner in which India’s control on the region has become stronger, that too with compliance from the Maldives,” the analyst further added.
A National Security Advisors (NSA) level trilateral meeting on maritime security cooperation was inaugurated in 2011 in the Maldives. This was the beginning of what became known as the "Trilateral in Maritime Cooperation" between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Since its inception in 2011, there have been four NSA-level maritime cooperation meetings, the inaugural one held in the Maldives, and then again in 2013 in Sri Lanka with the third meeting in the following year in India.
This trilateral maritime cooperation encapsulates Sri Lanka, Laccadive Islands and the Maldives with India acting as the main safety dragnet in the area; under this cooperation joint military exercises between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives were held to show solidarity and unity among the three.
Unfortunately, after the 2014 meeting, there was a halt owing to the deteriorating relations between India and the Maldives during 2014 to 2018.
After a hiatus of six years, the fourth NSA-level Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation meeting between the countries took place by the end of November 2020 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said the meeting would “provide an opportunity for discussion on issues pertaining to cooperation in maritime security in the Indian Ocean region.”
The NSA-level meetings resumed after the new administration of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih assumed power in the Maldives in 2018. Since then, Maldives and its two regional allies put fresh impetus to resume the trilateral maritime dialogue realizing the topical necessity for the continuation of the meeting – this led to the fourth meeting in 2020.
In July 2021, Maldives along with Sri Lanka and India participated in a virtual trilateral table top exercise discussing best practices and procedures “for countering common trans-national maritime crime” like curbing narcotics and assistance in maritime search and rescue. This fresh effort came to be known as the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), while Mauritius was added to the said conclave.
On January 20, 2022 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while virtually inaugurating social housing projects in Mauritius, said Mauritius was instrumental for India to properly implement its approach in the Indian Ocean. Three months after the Indian Prime Minister made the remarks, another NSA-level cooperative meeting was held on March 9, 2022 at Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort that was attended by the initial three countries in the trilateral maritime cooperation as well as the newest addition to the conclave; Mauritius. Bangladesh and Seychelles partook the meetings as observer nations.
Maldives Minister of Defense Mariya Ahmed Didi participated in the meeting on behalf of the Maldives, while all four countries to the meeting signed an agreement, the details of which were never disclosed to the Maldivian public. The only thing known to the public about the meeting’s outcome was that the four countries had agreed to collaborate in five distinct areas, in a bid to govern or combat them, which include;
- Indian Ocean Maritime Security and Safety
- Counter-Terrorism and Radicalization
- Trafficking and Trans-national Organized Crime
- Cyber-security and Infrastructure
- Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief
Many political commentators claimed this initiative was a strategic move to reduce China’s influence in the Indian Ocean region, and a powerful retort to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China meanwhile, questions the intention of India regarding the conclave initiative. An opinion piece that had appeared on Global Times, a state-affiliated media of China, claimed that if India were to discontinue any non-traditional maritime operation in favor of an anti-China campaign, then the repercussions will be destructive in nature.
The Mauritius representative at the 2022 conclave held between Maldives, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and India at Sheraton Maldives, was attended by the National Security Advisor of India to the Mauritius Kumaresan Ilango. Some reports from Reuters claim Ilango has once been a senior officer of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW); somewhat the Indian equivalent to America’s CIA or the Russian KGB. It was suggested, that back when Ilango was stationed at the Sri Lankan Mission back in 2015, he had a direct hand in maneuvering the Sri Lankan presidential election, after which the then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa urged Indian government to call him back – a news that was covered in international media.
During his visit to the Maldives in 2022 to attend the conclave meeting, Ilango had met with Maldives Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed as well as seniors of Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) – the Maldivian military. Apart from stating these were courtesy visits, Ilango did not disclose any other detail about the meetings.
On June 24, 2022 Maldives and Mauritius discussed on areas of bilateral cooperation. This was when President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih visited Rwanda to attend a Commonwealth meeting. Maldives head of state had met with the Mauritian Prime Minister at the Commonwealth meeting’s sidelines. These consecutive meetings between Maldivian and Mauritian leaders coincided with their case at the ITLOS. But the governments of both countries have been mum about the nature of their discussions – as of today, no intimate detail about the discussions have been publicly divulged. Even the details about the leaders’ encounter at the Commonwealth meeting was notified as a discussion between Maldives and Mauritius to strengthen their ties and seek on possible areas of cooperation at an international scale, according to President’s Office.
Two months after the countries had apparently discussed over areas, they each had stakes in, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in August 2022 confirmed Maldives now acknowledged Chagos Islands belonged under the sovereign administration of Mauritius – thereby changing the decades old stance on the matter.
This indicates that President Solih’s decision to send the letter to Mauritian Prime Minister was not an abrupt decision. Ever since the trilateral maritime cooperation between Maldives, Sri Lanka and India transitioned into the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) with the addition of Mauritius in 2021, following a revamp of the maritime efforts that was in hiatus since 2014, it is logical that the meetings that were held between the countries; specifically, the ones between Maldives and Mauritius, paved way for President Solih’s eventual decision.
It is also understandable that for the maximum effectiveness of implementing security measures in the Indo-Pacific region, India needed the bond between Maldives and Mauritius to bolster further. This pegs the question whether Maldives will be willing to establish cooperative efforts with Mauritius at an international scale without the former first backing the latter in a much-contested matter; and thereby, bringing a decades old feud to an end.
Discussions regards all those aforementioned proceeded at the highest national level in respect with the parties to it, and while the public or other interested stakeholders may wish to know particulars that were discussed, it is unlikely that the countries will be willing to share such sensitive information for public consumption. But on the other hand, the only way to douse fires of skepticism is through transparency; by providing the full picture of what have transpired between the nations.
While Maldives maintains it will continue to expend all available resources to ensure the country retains its territorial area, such declarations do not amount to much unless it is proven with action. For now, all anyone can say about this controversial subject is that two tropical neighbors that had held an old feud over ownership of another set of islands geographically between them, had finally come to an end, enhancing a new alliance that may continue to strengthen even further. But when it comes to the disputed territory between the countries, Maldives claims its stance remains unchanged.