Chinese warships return to South China Sea as Indian Navy continues heavy deployment around Maldives

A Chinese warship flotilla that had entered the Indian Ocean, reportedly heading for the Maldives Islands, has turned around and returned to the South China Sea, say highly credible Indian Navy sources.

On Tuesday, Reuters quoted Chinese website to report that eleven Chinese warships had entered the Indian Ocean “amid a constitutional crisis in the tiny tropical island chain of the Maldives now under a state of emergency”, clearly suggesting gunboat diplomacy at work.

However, Indian Navy sources say that, while a Chinese flotilla, including a destroyer and a frigate, had indeed crossed into the Indian Ocean through the Sunda Strait, it turned around and returned to the South China Sea through the Lombok Strait.

The four straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai Wetar are used by China’s People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), to cross between their bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

That leaves the PLA(N) with three warships in the vicinity -- its routine deployment in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy escort duties. In addition to this “28th Anti-Piracy Escort Force” (APEF), as the three-vessel task force is called, three more PLA(N) warships that had formed the 27th APEF are currently visiting African ports.

The Indian Navy, meanwhile, continues maintaining a heavy presence of battle-ready warships in the Arabian Sea, including many close to the Maldives.

According to a navy announcement last Wednesday, “A tri-service maritime exercise, codenamed ‘Paschim Lehar’, commenced on the Western seaboard on 12 Feb[ruary 20]18. This exercise includes the participation of a large number of ships, submarines and aircraft from the Western Naval Command of the Indian Navy.”

The announcement also revealed the presence of “Eastern Naval Command, Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Coast Guard [units that are] also participating to build interoperability.”

In all, India has over 40 ships and submarines deployed in Exercise Paschim Lehar, and a similar number of combat aircraft.

If further signalling were needed of the ready availability of Indian military power, the Navy also announced that army amphibious forces – specialist units used to assault and capture island targets – were also participating in the on-going exercise.

Contacted for comments, an Indian Navy spokesperson stated: “This is a routine training exercise that is taking place. It will last for a month.”

In simple strategic terms, India’s proximity to the Maldives lets it project far greater force around the archipelago than the PLA(N), for significantly longer durations.

The on-going constitutional crisis in the Maldives is a contest for influence between the pro-China President Abdulla Yameen, and his pro-India predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, who is currently in exile in Sri Lanka.

New Delhi is concerned that the Maldives is gravitating into Beijing’s orbit, with Yameen signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative. There is worry that China could eventually build a naval base here.

Yameen has allowed Beijing to invest in a major port project in the Maldives. That prompted Nasheed to state that China was “buying up the Maldives”.

Yameen has responded with a political crackdown. After the Supreme Court ordered the release of jailed opposition members earlier this month, Yameen declared a 10-day state of emergency on February 5.

On Monday, Yameen sought parliamentary approval to extend the emergency for 30 days. However, in a press release on Tuesday, the Ministry of External Affairs tweeted: “It is our expectation that the Government of Maldives will not be seeking the extension of the State of Emergency and resume the political process with immediate effect.”

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