‘India, Sri Lanka, Maldives up maritime security’
- Posted By
7th Dec, 2020
India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives revived their trilateral maritime security cooperation dialogue, for the first meeting of the group since 2014.
- The India–Sri Lanka–Maldives trilateral meeting saw the revival of the National Security Advisor (NSA)-level dialogue among the three countries, which began almost a decade ago in 2011.
- The meeting took place six years after the last edition in 2014 is significant.
- Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives are critical maritime neighbours to India in the Indian Ocean region and there have been continuous efforts by both India and China to win friends and favours in Colombo and Male.
- The NSA-level talks are also a demonstration of the Indian intent to push subregional diplomacy, which has been gaining traction in India’s foreign policy in the last few years.
- The Indian Government has made efforts to engage in subregional diplomacy as a useful track following the near-complete halt in regional diplomacy in South Asia under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
What does the NSA Meeting assume significance?
- The trilateral NSA-level meetings between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives began in 2011 and since then four meetings have been held, including the latest one, which took place in Colombo.
- The last NASA-level talk between the three nations was held in 2014 in New Delhi.
- The latest dialogue was conducted keeping in mind the COVID-19 pandemic and all delegates had to adhere to strict guidelines, including the 'Air Bubble' concept.
The previous developments
- DOSTI (India-Maldives): Following the first trilateral meeting, the India–Maldives ‘DOSTI’ joint Coast Guard exercise in 2012 added Sri Lanka and was held as a trilateral exercise.
- India–Maldives DOSTI exercises have been going on since 1991.
- These are aimed at strengthening capabilities of the three partners in the area of search and rescue operations, combating piracy and armed robbery, damage control, and casualty evacuation at sea.
- SLINEX (India-Sri Lanka): India and Sri Lanka also have held bilateral naval exercises called SLINEX since 2005.
- The latest iteration, the eighth, was held off Trincomalee in Sri Lanka in October 2020.
The NSA-level meeting is significant for two reasons:
- First, it involves both the Maldives and Sri Lanka, countries that — because of the leaders at their helm – have very different geostrategic orientations.
- Maldives’ President Ibrahim Solih has enthusiastically welcomed a greater role for India, as well as the United States, in the region.
- However, this has not been the case so far with Sri Lanka since last year, with the Rajapaksa brothers back at the top. Even though Sri Lanka has rhetorically committedto an “India first” approach when it comes to security, the fine print indicates that Colombo will engage with other major powers – read, China for its economic development.
- Second, the meeting is important since India has been concerned over the increased aggressive behaviour by China in the Indo-Pacific region, especially this year, in the middle of the pandemic.
- New Delhi wants all the neighbouring maritime neighbours to be on the same page on the issue of Beijing’s assertive and proactive actions in the Indian Ocean region.
What are the key-advances made in the meeting?
- To encourage meaningful maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives discussed several areas for possible collaboration such as:
- Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)
- Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)
- joint military exercises, capacity building, maritime security threats, marine pollution, and maritime underwater heritage.
- The three states agreed to further strengthen cooperation in dealing with these Maritime Security challenges, to ensure peace and security in the region for common benefit.
- The Heads of Delegations decided that they would meet periodically to maintain the momentum of the dialogue and to ensure timely execution of the decisions taken at the NSA-level meetings.
- According to the joint statement, a decision was also made to institute deputy NSA-level working group meetings biannually for cooperation at the operational level.
Who represented the trilateral?
- For the Colombo trilateral, the Indian side was represented by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval
- The Maldives sent its Defence Minister Mariya Didi, and Sri Lanka was represented by Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne.
- Mauritius and Seychelles were also present virtually at the level of senior officials.
Why led India to drive its approach to security cooperation in the neighbourhood?
A couple of factors seem to drive Delhi’s sub-regional approach to security cooperation in the neighbourhood.
- Interlinked transnational security challenges: The recognition that sub-regional security dynamics are interconnected and there is a need to view it with a holistic approach beyond bilateralism.
- Leading security role: The desire to play a leading security role in the neighbourhood. A geostrategic subtext driving India’s calculations is if Delhi does not play the role, it might open room for rival powers to step in its backyard. For the idea of sub-regional security cooperation to be effective, Delhi would need to consider a couple of factors.
What are the challenges for India in maritime security?
- Growing Chinese activism: While broader maritime security, anti-piracy, and HADR are important components of growing India–Sri Lanka–Maldives strategic narrative, the real worry for India is growing Chinese activism in the Indian Ocean region.
- China’s efforts at cultivating the Indian Ocean littoral states have been a concern for New Delhi.
- Capacity gaps: While India is a resident Indian Ocean power and has its advantages, there are capacity gaps in India’s ability to play a sustained or dominant role.
- Capital intensive and time-consuming projects: While India is stepping up its efforts in naval modernization, these are capital intensive and time-consuming projects. The small budget allocations for the Indian Navy are not helpful either.
- Foreign policy behaviour: An issue that has and will continue to pose a challenge in forging sub-regional security cooperation for India relates to the foreign-policy behaviour of smaller neighbours. For instance, the progress of the NSA-level trilateral meeting was affected when Delhi’s ties with Male deteriorated under Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen.
What are the recent developments made by India?
- Partnership agreements: India has entered into a series of partnerships with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia, Japan, and the United States, to offset the growing Chinese influence as well as to enhance India’s capabilities.
- The logistic agreements that India has signed with several countries – including the United States, Australia, France, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan.
- They are a demonstration of the Indian intent to enhance the geographical reach of the Indian Navy, and also to strengthen the combined capability mix that is available to deal with China’s aggressive manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean region.
- Focus on regional groupings: Meanwhile, even as India pursues a neighbourhood first approach, it has also acknowledged the limitations of regional groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which came to a grinding halt a few years ago.
- India had reached out to the SAARC nations in recent years, but the bonhomie did not last long.
- Therefore, India has energized other regional groupings such as BIMSTEC and subregional arrangements such as the BBIN and the India–Sri Lanka–Maldives trilateral.
- While the subregional initiatives have primarily focused on connectivity and similar issues, India is also exploring the possibility of engaging in subregional security cooperation.
What steps should India take?
- Maintaining good bilateral relations: Sub-regional cooperation cannot be insulated from bilateral political relations and, hence, maintaining good bilateral relations with individual countries and responding to the growing aspirations of smaller neighbours would be crucial.
- Sensitivity towards small neighbours: Showing sensitivity and accommodating the smaller neighbours’ concerns would further strengthen mutual trust, an issue that is inherent in the relations between big and small neighbours.
- Clarity on boundary issues: Drawing a clear boundary of the subregion will continue to remain a challenge as cooperation will not always be driven by the proximity factor but also by the nature of the issue itself.
- However, some clarity on the boundary issue may help in better framing the objectives of sub-regional security cooperation and avoid overlapping of membership or duplication of activities.
In the coming times, the nature and framework of bilateral political relations are going to have an impact on sub-regional initiatives, especially in the maritime domain. The case of the NSA-level trilateral maritime dialogue between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives is a case in point. The recent meet indicates that the sub-regional approach is here to stay and its importance is likely to grow in the coming years