By Gulbin Sultana, PhD
Maiden ‘Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) Focused Operation’ was conducted between the Indian Navy (IN), the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), and the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) on 27 and 28 November 2021 in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the three countries in Southern Arabian Sea. The aim of the CSC Focused Operation was to “build understanding and interoperability between the lead maritime security agencies, and facilitate institution of measures to prevent and suppress transnational crimes”to keep this vital part of the Indian Ocean Region “safe and secure for commercial shipping, international trade and conduct of legitimate maritime activities”.
India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka began a National Security Advisor (NSA)-level trilateral meeting on maritime security cooperation in 2011. Following a halt from 2014-2019, the trilateral meeting was resumed in 2020, when the decision was taken to establish the CSC. Until 2014 the main focus of the trilateral grouping was to initiate collective action to deal with the common security threats and challenges in the maritime domain. In this context, cooperation included initiating measures to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), sharing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) data; training and capacity building initiative in areas of MDA, Search and Rescue (SAR), Oil Pollution Response, as well as joint activities including trilateral exercises, maintaining lines of communication on illegal maritime activities, formulation of marine oil pollution response contingency plan, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cooperation in legal and policy issues related to piracy, hydrography, maritime and underwater heritage, training in Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations and so on. During the NSA level meeting in November 2020, all the three countries agreed to broad base cooperation by expanding the scope to improve intelligence sharing and include issues such as terrorism, radicalization, extremism, illegal drugs, weapons, and human trafficking, money laundering, cyber security, and effect of climate change on the maritime environment.
It was acknowledged in 2020 that to ensure effective implementation of decisions taken at the trilateral meetings, it is important to have biannual Deputy NSA level working group meeting, cooperation at the operational level, intelligence sharing and enhancement and maintenance of maritime information management system, improvement of personnel capabilities, and cooperation on education and training among the three countries. In keeping with these decisions, a secretariat was set up at the SLN Headquarters in Colomboon 1 March 2021;a virtual trilateral table top exercise was held in July 2021 to discuss best practices and procedures for countering common trans-national maritime crimes; andDeputy NSA level meeting was convened in August 2021wherethe three countries identified four pillars of cooperation, namely, Marine Safety and Security, Terrorism and Radicalization, Trafficking and Organised Crime and Cyber Security.
The ‘Focused Operation’ conducted between the navies of the three countries in the last week of November was the first operational cooperation under the CSC. It is noteworthy to mention here that the Coastguards of the three countries have been participating in the biennial exercise Dosti regularly since 2012. The exercise Dosti was originally launched in 1991 as a bilateral exercise between India and the Maldives. Sri Lanka joined in 2012. Thus, though exercise Dosti enhances interoperability between the three countries, it does not directly come under the CSC.
An effective security cooperative framework requires operational synergy among the partners through the exchange of information and the conduct of coordinated operations to handle maritime incidents. By inaugurating the ‘Focused Operation’, and setting up the 24/7 secretariat, the CSC has obtained an operational tooth, which other maritime security cooperation grouping in the region such as Indian Ocean RIM Association (IORA) lacks.
In the last one year, the CSC has made commendable progress. There is a strong political will among the three countries to cooperate to deal with the common non-traditional security challenges. There is a will to involve all the stakeholders at the policy and operational level simultaneously. The three countries are also well connected through Coastal Surveillance Radar System (CSRS) and the AIS to share information on the maritime activities in the seas adjacent to their territories under the White Shipping Agreement. The Information Fusion Centre (IFC), Indian Ocean Region Gurgaon has the technology to fuse the white shipping information collected by the CSRS and the AIS and share it with other countries. The CSC mechanism provides for sharing maritime intelligence using the existing technology among the three countries. India’s existing security and defence cooperation with Sri Lanka and the Maldives and military exercises at the bilateral and trilateral level outside the CSC can facilitate enhanced cooperation at the operational level to implement the decisions taken at the policy level.
The Colombo Security Conclave has the potential to emerge as an effective security framework at the subregional level in the Indian Ocean. While the CSC can and must expand its membership to include Mauritius, Seychelles, and Bangladesh, it should not try to expand the scope of cooperation to incorporate traditional security issues. In the areas of traditional security,even though it is in the interest of all the CSC member countries to see that peace and freedom of navigation are maintained in the Indian Ocean area, they do not follow a similar approach on the issue of big-power rivalry in the region. CSC can be an effective platform, as long as there is a convergence of interest among the member countries to cooperate under the framework.
(The author is Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).