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Bolstering foothold
The trilateral maritime security agreement

Maldives and Sri Lanka, eyed by China and other world military powers because of their significant geopolitical locations, have entered into a trilateral cooperation with India on Maritime Security of far reaching importance.

China has adopted Sri Lanka as one of the gems in its String of Pearls strategy to mark its strong presence in the Indian Ocean and encircle and contain India. And recently China has deepened its strategic and political engagement with Maldives by offering many sops to lure the island nation within its strategic fold.

On the other hand the US is also in serious negotiations with the Maldives government to enter into a Status of Forces Agreement, which will provide a foothold to the American forces in this strategically significant island. India would not like the presence of any of the big powers to station their forces so close to Indian coasts, roughly 300 nautical miles from Kerala.

However India has made a significant strategic move to bring the two island nations under the common umbrella of Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security in which Indian maritime assets will play a lead role.

Though the trilateral security cooperation has not been agreed with the express intent of engaging in security partnership as understood in traditional sense, the agreement will help bring the security establishments of the three countries in a very close web of naval cooperation.

The Coast Guards and Navies of Maldives and India have already been conducting bilateral naval exercises since 1991 on annual basis called DOSTI, which has been now joined by Sri Lanka as well. The three nations have decided to expand the scope of this trilateral naval engagement to the table top exercise also.

Expansion plans

Significantly the three sides have also agreed to expand the scope of the trilateral initiative to include other Indian Ocean littoral nations. The three countries have also agreed that in the current maritime security environment in the Indian Ocean Region it was important to raise the level of maritime cooperation.

Since the three nations faces common maritime threats and challenges, it was very natural that the two tiny islands nations have come forward to accept India as a dominant partner in the trilateral maritime security cooperation which in all practical sense will be a kind of security partnership.

Serious negotiations for the agreement were underway since last two years. In October, 2011 the National Security advisor of India along with the Defence Ministers of Maldives and Sri Lanka met for the first time. Under the rubric of the NSA level talks on 8th July, 2013 the three National Security officials gave a final shape to the Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security Cooperation calling it as Outcome document.

In the trilateral talks the Sri Lankan side was represented by Gotabaya Rajapaksa , Secretary Ministry of Defence and Maldives government sent its Minister of Defence and National Security Mohamad Nazim. The direction for this trilateral cooperation agreement was given during the first NSA level meeting on 1st October, 2011 and to discuss the nitty-gritty of the agreement four meetings were held at the senior level and technical level. According to an official of the MEA, these preparatory works has been useful in framing the outcomes of the second NSA level meeting in Colombo.

According to the Outcome Document  during the Second NSA-level Trilateral Meeting, the three sides discussed a wide range of topics including enhancing cooperation in Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through provision of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) services, MDA  training and Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) software by India, sharing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data; strengthening coordination of maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) including SAR training; promoting marine oil pollution response cooperation; expanding bilateral ‘DOSTI’ (friendship) exercises through holding of table top exercises; further enhancing sharing of the information on illegal maritime activities through existing points of contact; and forming a trilateral sub-group focused on policy and legal issues related to piracy.

Maldives and Sri Lanka have also agreed to utilize the facility of the Indian Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) data centre. This will help in monitoring and tracking Maldives and Sri Lanka flagged merchant vessels. These two island nations will be providing required details according to International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations through diplomatic channels.

Under the cooperation agreement the three countries will utilize the Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) for exchange of unclassified information on white shipping. The three countries will share the Automatic Identification System (AIS) in a trilateral format over the MSIS platform.

The officials of Sri Lanka and Maldives will undergo training in India for Maritime Domain Awareness. The trilateral agreement will also help strengthen the maritime linkages in the field of search and rescue (SAR) including through SAR operations. Indian experts will provide technical expertise in setting up Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) in Sri Lanka and Maldives. The officials will coordinate in relaying and receiving distress alerts and safety messages. Under the agreement the Maldivian and Sri Lankan official will get SAR training in India.

The three countries will strengthen mechanism for Exclusive Economic Zone surveillance and provide additional support and assets on case by case basis. They will also maintain lines of communication on illegal maritime activities between identified points of contacts and the three countries will exchange messages on a regular basis.

Strategic dimension

Through this agreement Sri Lanka and Maldives will also be assured of India’s assistance during the incidents of marine pollution like oil spills and sinking of ships with chemicals. The three countries will pass Tsunami warnings simultaneously.

In view of recent tensions  in relations between India and Maldives and India and Sri Lanka it is very significant that the two island nations have decided to set aside the issues with India and agreed to seek India’s assistance in strengthening and ensuring maritime security.

India has been traditional security partner for Maldives and Sri Lanka but the geo political significance of the two island nations have attracted big powers like China and US towards them especially Maldives, which is susceptible to succumb under financial and other aid program.

Though the trilateral maritime security is essentially civilian in nature but the involvement of the armed forces in executing the agreement adds strategic dimension to the agreement.  Since there were lots of concerns in Indian strategic circles regarding the unpredictable behavior of these two island nations, the latest trilateral maritime security agreement will bring relief.

With the increasing focus on Indian Ocean by the big powers the strategic importance of these two island nations which are very close to Indian coast will gradually increase.

India has thus made a very significant move to bring these two nations under its tutelage. Even if these two island nations do not become India’s strategic anchor in the Indian Ocean, the trilateral agreement will ensure that other powers do not make any hidden moves to harm India’s strategic interests.

In the ongoing strategic games being played by the big powers to extend their influence in the Indian Ocean, India has certainly made a very significant move, which will allow Indian Navy to maintain domain awareness over the maritime areas of the two island nations.