India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to discuss security concerns; Maritime Cooperation also on agenda

Updated: November 27, 2020 5:23 PM

In the emerging security situation in the Indian Ocean, India seems to be comfortable with the presence of the US and other like-minded countries in the region.

The NSA level dialogue among the three countries was inaugurated in 2011 in the Maldives.The NSA level dialogue among the three countries was inaugurated in 2011 in the Maldives.

By Gulbin Sultana, PhD

India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval made an official visit to Sri Lanka on November 27, 2020, on the invitation of Secretary to the Ministry of Defence of Sri Lanka Major General (Retd.) Kamal Gunaratne to participate at the Fourth National Security Advisor Level Trilateral Meeting on Maritime Security Cooperation between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The two days Trilateral Meeting on November 27-28, 2020 would be attended by NSA Doval, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gunaratne and Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi. Representatives from Bangladesh, Mauritius and Seychelles are also expected to attend the meeting as observers.

The fourth NSA level meeting is taking place after a gap of six years. The NSA level dialogue among the three countries was inaugurated in 2011 in the Maldives. Second and the third meeting held in Sri Lanka in 2013 and India in 2014 respectively. The trilateral dialogue during 2011-2014 proved to be quite effective to address maritime security issues and concerns. During the second meeting in 2013, a roadmap for maritime security cooperation was agreed by the three countries which include 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, and cooperation in legal and policy issues related to piracy. Newer areas of cooperation including hydrography, training in Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations, training on-board Indian Sail Training Ships, exchanges between think tanks and joint participation in adventure activities were discussed during the third meeting in 2014.

There has been lots of enthusiasm and acknowledgement at the highest levels in these three countries on the importance of the dialogue. Thought was also given to expanding the trilateral mechanism to include more littoral countries in the region who have common security issues and interests. Seychelles and Mauritius attended the meeting in 2014 as observers. Unfortunately, there was a halt in the meeting since 2014 mainly due to the deteriorating relations between India and the Maldives during 2014-2018.

After the new administration under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih assumed power in the Maldives in 2018, there has been a fresh impetus to resume the trilateral maritime dialogue. As decided in the third meeting in 2014, the next meeting was supposed to be held in the Maldives. Nonetheless, Sri Lanka took the initiative to host the dialogue this year.

Off late, Sri Lanka has emerged as a theatre for strategic power play among the big powers in the Indian Ocean region. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka last month and calling China a ‘predator’ and strong reaction from the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka on the former’s visit to the Indian Ocean island nations are clear indications of an open competition between these extra-regional powers to gain influence on the smaller Islands and countries in the region.

Given the limited capability and the vast ocean area to look after, ensuring maritime security is a major security concern for Sri Lanka and the Maldives. When these two countries are open to seeking assistance and security cooperation with everyone, they are strongly averse to the idea of being unnecessarily dragged into big power competition in the Indian Ocean region. Though it is largely believed in Sri Lanka and the Maldives that India has its strategic interests in the region and is competing with China to enhance its influence in the neighbouring countries, there is an underlying acknowledgement of the fact that all the regional countries including India share common security interests in the Indian Ocean. There should be a regional platform led by regional leaders to address their common security concerns. There is a wide acceptance of India’s leadership role to lead such a regional initiative.

As the geo-strategic developments are unfolding in the region, and the extra-regional powers are trying to woo Sri Lanka and the Maldives with security and developmental cooperation, it is crucial for the government of these countries to strictly maintain their announced non-aligned foreign policy. To avoid being a pawn in the big power competition in the region, the Rajapaksa and the Solih administration need to be tactful and adopt a multi-pronged approach at the bilateral, regional and global level to address their security needs.

In the emerging security situation in the Indian Ocean, India seems to be comfortable with the presence of the US and other like-minded countries in the region. Nonetheless, India must ensure that in the long run, it does not lose its relevance in the neighbourhood.

Factoring in the geo-strategic dynamics in the Indian Ocean region, as well as the security needs and strategic concerns of the littoral states, resumption of the NSA level trilateral meeting between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives on maritime Security Cooperation and inviting Mauritius, Seychelles and Bangladesh is a welcome development.

(The author is Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal)

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