Chinese military activities in the Indian Ocean Region are a warning to India

Sri Lanka is also allowing Chinese research vessels in its ports. China has big plans for the region, not just spy ships.

Representational photo

The mudslinging among Indian political parties over Sri Lanka’s Katchtheevu Island was covered in these columns earlier ( Austin Fernando, former Sri Lankan envoy to India, told Indian media if India crosses the Sri Lankan maritime international boundary line, it would violate Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. He also questioned if Pakistan proposes similar sea encroachment near Goa or Bangladesh does something like this in the Bay of Bengal, what will be India’s response?

But while India was busy in internal politicking, China appears to have pulled off a major heist right under the nose of the Indian Government. On March 28, the Maldives Industrial Development Free Zone (MIDF) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the China Harbor Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) to undertake a large-scale agriculture project after land reclamation in Uthuru Thila Falhu - an atoll closest to India. Under the MoU, the MNDF and CHEC are to develop an Agricultural Economic Zone (AEZ).

However, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Maldives’ main opposition party, suspects that the Chinese are not coming to plant trees, but to undertake military work in the Uthuru Thila Falhu atoll.  MDP Chairperson Fayyaz Ismail told the media, "They're (CHEC) not coming to plant trees. There's a strong MNDF harbor there. They’re coming to do military work for a big country (China) far from here."   

Chinese influence in Maldives

The website of CHEC states that the company is focused on basic infrastructure construction, such as marine engineering, dredging and reclamation, roads and bridges, railways, airports, complete plant, and other works. CHEC prides itself on providing a full service to its clients and uses its international engineering experience, global business network, talented management team and robust financial backing to offer clients a wide range of service options such as D&B, EPC, PMC, BT and BOT.

Notably, CHEC developed Sri Lanka's Hambantota port, which was later taken over by Beijing for 99 years after Colombo failed to service its debts. Does the same fate await Maldives? In 2018, Bangladesh blacklisted CHEC for allegedly trying to bribe a senior government official. CHEC operates under a special commission directly overseen by the Chinese government's State Council and reportedly has direct ties with China's PLA. CHEC played a major role in China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

During his visit to China, Maldives’ President Mohammad Muizzu signed several MoUs, including one on strategic cooperation for "four years" and another on developing the Blue Economy. China is already committed to building a commercial port in Male. Also, The four-year strategic cooperation MoU would see China building a port in Maldives under the pretext of “transshipments”.

The Export-Import Bank of China has provided $1 billion-plus to the Maldives for upgrading an airport, a new bridge, and relocating a Maldives port. 70 percent of Maldives’ total debt is attributed to Chinese projects, with an annual payment of $92 million to China; some 10 percent of the country's entire budget. In the Maldives, China is exerting influence over infrastructure, trade, and energy sectors. Muizzu has signed a free military assistance deal with China under which China would supply "non-lethal" weapons to the Maldives.

Threatening India's neighbourhood

Zhiyong of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said in 2018 that China is promoting Maldives as a maritime pivot; Maldives could become a supply base for Chinese military and civil vessels. Ahmed Naseem, former foreign minister of Maldives, had warned in  April 2016 of indications that Maldives letting China build a port at Gaadhoo Island in the southern atoll and people had already been evacuated from the region with Chinese building roads there (

In January this year, a Chinese research vessel docked, which the MDP confirmed had been mapping underwater terrain over the past few months after entering the Maldivian territorial waters. Sri Lanka is also allowing Chinese research vessels in its ports. China has big plans for the region, not just spy ships.

With reports of the presence of US Special Forces in Taiwan’s Kinmen Island (just 4.8 lm from China's coastal city of Xiamen), it would. not be surprising if China is also planning to position a surveillance detachment in  Katchatheevu. China already had a presence on Myanmar’s Great Coco Island, north of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But now fresh military construction is being reported in the Coco Islands, where a second military airbase has just been completed, which has an obvious Chinese involvement. 

The Indian government needs to focus more on its immediate neighborhood rather than on global issues, like claiming leadership of the Global South and talking about brokering peace in Ukraine, Gaza, and the like.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)

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