India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral: Towards consolidating regional maritime security

The resumption of this interaction last held in New Delhi in 2014 is an important step forward in recognising the magnitude of the external and internal threat to maritime security and to develop a shared approach to the security of this region, writes Cmde Anil Jai Singh (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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The fourth India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral Maritime Security Dialogue, held after a gap of six years in Colombo on November 27-28, underlined the importance of a stable security environment in this strategic neighbourhood. 

This meeting, the previous three editions of which had focused mainly on the maritime domain, broadened the discussion to include other common security concerns like terrorism, radicalisation, money laundering, cybersecurity, etc, which are not exclusive only to the maritime domain and are destabilising factors in the larger South Asian context.

The resumption of this interaction last held in New Delhi in 2014 is an important step forward in recognising the magnitude of the external and internal threat to maritime security and to develop a shared approach to the security of this region. It also reflects on the importance these countries attach to their bilateral relationship with India which has also been reiterated by their respective political leadership.

The high-level interaction, led by the Indian National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Maj Gen (retd) Kamal Gunaratne and the Maldivian Foreign Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi and their decision to institutionalise this with a biennial Deputy NSA-level meeting will further consolidate the relationship in the larger interest of addressing the regional security concerns with a focus on the maritime element.  

SAGAR

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had articulated the concept of SAGAR, an acronym for ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ to build an inclusive and cooperative approach to regional security in the Indian Ocean led by India as the pre-eminent power in the region. That SAGAR is also the Hindi word for the sea was no coincidence and emphasised the importance of the maritime domain in the regional security calculus which is not surprising given the distinct maritime orientation of the Indo-Pacific region and its emergence as the global geopolitical centre of gravity.

In the five years since then, India has initiated various capacity building measures with both these countries but surprisingly this trilateral meeting did not take place, possibly due to the underlying tensions in the bilateral relationship caused primarily due to the shadow cast by China in this region. 

The China factor

China has made no secret of its intention to dominate South Asia and has made deep inroads into continental and maritime South Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative, its military diplomacy, and its debt trap strategy, which is forcing some of the smaller nations to compromise on sovereign issues.  The prolonged border stand-off with India at the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas (part of China’s larger strategic design) has led to tensions amongst neighbours,  exposed the fragility of the existing status quo, and given rise to vulnerabilities which it will seek to exploit for destabilising the region and weakening India’s position. 

From a maritime perspective, the resumption of this trilateral interaction has sent a clear message of the region’s resilience in withstanding Chinese attempts at altering the status quo of the existing rules-based international order and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific into one with ‘Chinese characteristics’ in its bid to expand its sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean en-route to its ultimate intent of displacing the USA as the global numero uno.  

The maritime dimension

The Indian Ocean Region is beset with a multitude of traditional, non-traditional, and transnational threats that threaten peace and stability in the region. India, as a net security provider has taken the lead in developing networked security architecture to mitigate these challenges through a capacity-building approach that addresses the collective as well as the individual security concerns within India’s immediate strategic neighbourhood. 

And also beyond a series of capability and capacity building initiatives anchored in a robust and effective maritime domain awareness capability which is a pre-requisite to deter and pre-empt a developing situation or to react well in time to address it effectively through a coordinated multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral, and multinational effort.

Maritime domain awareness

Conscious of its responsibility as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean, India has been steadily improving its Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) capability. The effective utilisation of its space assets and its Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) Aircraft ably supported by medium-range reconnaissance aircraft, autonomous platforms, and helicopters; the presence of more than a dozen warships on a multi-mission deployment at any given time in various parts of the Indo-Pacific, including key areas of concern and the deployment of submarines as valuable ISR assets provides inputs from the surface and underwater.

In addition, networked coastal security architecture with seamless radar coverage of India’s coastline, sensitisation of coastal communities to the coastal threat and White Shipping Agreements with over 20 nations and more in the offing provides the ability to reconnoiter wide swaths of the ocean.  

The Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre (IOR-OFC) located near New Delhi collates, analyses, and disseminates the information received from multiple sources. Connectivity with similar IFCs in Singapore and the Horn of Africa further enhance MDA.

As part of capacity building for individual and collective maritime security, India is establishing coastal security radars integrated into its coastal security architecture in neighbouring maritime countries including Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. 

Military diplomacy

British general and statesman Oliver Cromwell’s famous adage “A Man o’War is my best Ambassador” is as relevant today as it was then. Navies are the most effective instruments of foreign policy and projecting the country’s power. Showing the flag, whether with hostile intent or otherwise sends a strong signal. The Indian Navy is deployed across the Indo-Pacific region in defence of India’s national interests and its professionalism reflects India‘s maritime capability.

The Indian Navy exercises with more than 40 navies worldwide. In the regional context, numerous exercises with its smaller neighbours integrate them into a larger construct and enhance interoperability in tackling transnational threats. The trilateral ‘DOSTI’ (friendship) exercise between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives is a good example of this cooperation.  A number of military personnel from these countries train with their Indian counterparts in India’s military training establishments at all levels which are an important element of capacity building. 
 
Defence exports provide a degree of political and military cooperation. India has given ships to Sri Lanka and helicopters to the Maldives besides smaller equipment. This has improved the surveillance and Search and rescue (SAR) capability of these countries thereby providing wider coverage of the ocean and enhancing
the regional effort. 

Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) during natural and man-made calamities are an important element of the regional maritime security effort. Loss of lives and livelihood devastate coastal communities during natural disasters making them vulnerable to extra-regional influences that are detrimental to the region. India has been at the forefront as the first responder in these crises and has earned the respect and gratitude of these communities.

Most recently, the Indian and Sri Lankan navies worked together to render assistance to MT New Diamond, a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), that caught fire off the East Coast of Sri Lanka thus averting a major ecological disaster off Sri Lankan waters. 

Blue economy initiatives

Emerging transnational threats and predatory tactics by some large irresponsible nations like China is threatening the fragile marine eco-system and the sustainable exploitation of marine resources.  Coupled with the environmental effects of climate change on the oceans, many small Indian Ocean island states are facing an existential threat. Championing their cause at various global and multilateral fora where India has a respected voice would further enhance regional security. 

Maritime security and indeed regional security through a collective regional effort requires a synergistic approach to deliver optimum outcomes. Notwithstanding the suspension of this trilateral meeting for six years, India’s bilateral relationship with both Sri Lanka and the Maldives remained strong despite occasional headwinds. 

The resumption of this dialogue will further consolidate a shared approach towards addressing the maritime and security concerns as this region become increasingly important in the global great game. 

(The writer, a former submariner and an anti-submarine warfare specialist, is an Indian naval advisor in the UK. He is currently vice president, Indian Maritime Foundation. The views expressed are personal) 

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