In a bid to enlarge India's footprint in the Indian Ocean region and counter China's influence, Defence Minister A K Antony on Thursday began his three-day visit to the island nation of Maldives, where a pact for greater defence cooperation between the two sides is expected to be signed.
According to defence ministry sources, the island nation has sought greater defence cooperation with India in terms of coastal security and patrolling of the waters around it.
Shortly after his arrival at the Maldivian capital of Male, Antony called on President Mohammed Nasheed, a defence official said, adding that he will also hold talks with the top leadership of the government and the Maldives National Defence Force.
Antony will hold bilateral discussions with his Maldivian counterpart Ameen Faisal on ways to expand defence cooperation between the two countries, he added. The Maldives in the Indian Ocean is strategically important to India.
Three factors make the Maldives attractive to Indian security interests.
Firstly, with its proximity to the Indian island cluster of Lakshadweep, the Maldives has increased importance for the coastal security, in light of the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.
The second factor is that the country comprising more than 1,100 islets can offer India logistics support and perhaps even a base of operations and hence extend the Indian naval footprint.
The third is that the Maldives, by offering its facilities, can extend the Indian maritime airspace surveillance capability.
For India, the Indian Ocean region from Australia to Africa has become strategically important with China also striving to increase its presence.
China has been following its policy of encircling India under its "string of pearls" strategy. Beijing has been investing in ports in countries like Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The Indian Navy has been working to counter its influence by seeking enhanced partnership with over about 30 countries in the region, including the Maldives.
Antony is accompanied by a high-level delegation including Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar, Director General Armed Forces Lt Gen N.K. Parmar, Coast Guard Director General Vice Admiral Anil Chopra and Indian Navy deputy chief Vice Admiral D.K. Joshi.
There is a proposal to link the Maldives coastal security network with the Indian coastal radar network. The step would help India secure its more than 7,500 km long shoreline.
During his visit, Antony is likely to hand over one Indian Coast Guard helicopter to the Maldives; a second one from the Indian Navy will be supplied later.
Antony will also attend the closing session of the India-Maldives Friendship function besides visiting the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. The 200-bed general and speciality hospital has over the years provided the Maldives greater self-reliance in the field of medical care.
India was among the first to recognise the Maldives after independence in 1965 and to establish diplomatic relations with it. India's prompt assistance during the 1988 coup attempt, which defused the crisis, represents a watershed in India-Maldives relations.
It is also home to a large Indian diaspora.