Though the third NSA level meeting of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives has not attracted much media attention unlike the similar meetings between India, Japan and USA, but this has the potential of silently expanding India’s footprint in the Indian Ocean.
The three countries have agreed to form a cooperative structure for maritime security cooperation. In its third year of infancy, the trilateral meeting has been able to generate interest in other island nations like Seychelles and Mauritius who attended the New Delhi 6th March, 2014 meeting and confirmed that the next NSA level meeting would be a five nation agenda to promote peace and stability in the Indian Ocean. The Indian national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon led the Indian delegation while the Sri Lankan security team was led by Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary, Ministry of Defence and Urban Development and the Maldivian Defence Minister Col (Retd) Mohammad Nazim represented his country.
It is significant that the four island nations have joined the maritime bandwagon under India’s leadership, though India has obviously projected itself as equal participant. This will obviously widen the joint maritime security responsibility of the Island nations along with India who will coordinate with each other in keeping this area free of non state actors. Obviously the State actors will also notice this area falling under the joint maritime command of five nations and will have to respect their suzerainty over the area of control.
Certainly, the three nation construct cannot be described as the security alliance, but the armed forces led trilateral activities will bring the three forces together and since the naval forces of four Island nations will be using the assets of Indian Navy, it will increase their dependence on Indian maritime asset.
The coming together of five Indian Ocean nations will certainly fill the security void and give an impression that the five nations have formed a cooperative security venture, which will definitely propel them to help each other in need.
The NSA level New Delhi trilateral meeting not only reviewed the progress in the implementation of the decisions taken in Colombo last year but also moved forward to discuss new areas of cooperation. It is significant that the three NSA level trilateral meetings have happened at a time when the three nations have passed through domestic political flux.
India is in election mode and the Sri Lanka- India political relations are not at its best, India-Maldives relations has just been restored with the visit of the Maldivian President to India.
The third meeting agreed on a roadmap for maritime security which comprises following three categories of coordinated activities.
• Initiatives to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through access to systems run under the aegis of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), such as Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) services and sharing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data.
• Training and capacity building initiatives in areas of MDA, Search and Rescue, and Oil Pollution Response.
• Joint activities including trilateral exercises, maintaining lines of communication on illegal maritime activities, formulation of marine oil pollution response contingency plans and cooperation in legal and policy issues related to piracy.
After agreeing on the above three areas , the three countries further agreed to expand the scope of cooperation like hydrography; training in Visit, Board, Search and Seizure Operations; training on board Indian Sail Training Ships; exchanges between think tanks; and joint participation in adventure activities.
India has been conducting similar maritime exercises with other leading navies including US, UK and France and it is significant that similar practice sessions will also be conducted among Island nations along with India. These maritime activities will definitely promote camaraderie among the armed forces of five nations leading to better maritime security cooperation and making the four island nations less susceptible to unsolicited offers of maritime security cooperation and other forms of aid by non Indian Ocean powers.
Since these island nations occupy very important strategic space in the Indian Ocean, many countries have been luring them with many gifts and thus making them prone to succumbing to their influence. The big powers would like to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean by befriending these island nations and thus adversely impacting or balancing India’s maritime prowess in the Indian Ocean.
To give effect to the agreed roadmap for the multilateral cooperation the five nations have directed the Working/Technical Level Groups to meet at an early date to accelerate the implementation of joint activities and work out a program of cooperation in the new areas. One Indian official said that the participation of Mauritius and Seychelles in this initiative would contribute to enhancing maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region.
Explaining the relevance of the trilateral maritime security cooperation the Indian National Security Advisor said ”If you look at the Indian Ocean, today over a 100,000 ships pass through the Indian Ocean every year. Something like 66 per cent of the world’s oil cargo, over 50 per cent of the world’s container traffic, and something like 33 per cent of the world’s bulk cargo go through the Indian Ocean every year. So it is very important to our economies and in terms of security for all of us. And it is not an issue that any single country can actually solve on its own. So we decided to see what we could do.”
Describing the experience so far Menon observed, “I think we have achieved a great deal in this field in terms of sheer practical cooperation between our coastguards, between our navies, between our various institutions concerned with maritime security. We have in place now a platform which will actually enhance concrete responses to situations, whether it is piracy, whether it is pollution, whether it is illegal activities such as drug running and so on.”
According to an official statement of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) the discussions were also held on improving hydrographical studies and contributions by India and to involve maritime experts from the Sri Lanka and Maldives in think-tank sessions to be held in India. To conduct these programs agreements have been reached to hold discussions at working group and Deputy Security Advisor Levels.
Strategic observers will view India’s move to bring the Island nations under common security construct with China in mind. Of late China has been engaging with the Indian Ocean Island nations with a view to woo them to agree to provide the Chinese naval ships various rest and recreation facilities.
In fact China has already signed an agreement with Seychelles and is wooing Mauritius and Sri Lanka with various mega development projects. However it will be difficult to say at this stage whether the island nations will be overawed by Chinese largesse or prefer to give importance to its age old relations with India.
India has been maintaining very warm political and defence relations with Seychelles and Maldives but recent Chinese forays in the Indian Ocean has left the Indian security establishment worried. But to what extent the trilateral maritime security cooperation, to be soon expanded as a five nation group, will dissuade these island nations to avoid bilateral security cooperation with China would be very difficult to say. India’s effort to bring together four island nations along with India is presently being seen as still a baby step.
India will have to make sustained efforts to deepen this five nation maritime security cooperation and give a new meaning and dimension to their coming together.