Counter-terrorism, piracy high on radars of India, Sri Lanka, Maldives

by Rajeev Sharma

Strategic diplomacy is one area which is always work in progress and this work goes on despite local political scenarios. The Indian diplomatic and strategic establishments continue to be hyperactive even though the country is in the middle of general elections and foreign governments are staying engaged with the UPA government despite political projections that the UPA is unlikely to be in government by 1 June.

One such work-in-progress was the third National Security Advisor (NSA)-level Trilateral Meeting on Maritime Security Cooperation between Maldives, Sri Lanka and India on 6 March in New Delhi, an event which expectedly failed to rule the media outfits’ TRP.

Yet, the event was fairly important for obvious politico-strategic reasons. First of all, it is of vital interest for India that India maintains its prime status in the Indian Ocean. This comparatively new process of trilateral maritime security, which features Sri Lanka and Maldives along with India, is a baby step towards that goal and hence its importance.

Equally importantly, this event cements New Delhi’s closer security ties with Colombo and Male. India has had running contentious issues and controversies with each of its two partners. This event provides an important platform for the three South Asian countries to stay engaged on security and strategic issues.

Then there is the inevitable China factor, the perennial elephant in the room in any South Asian discourse. China is not an Indian Ocean power and yet Beijing has been continuously enlarging its strategic footprints in the region. This is an important red flag for the Indian strategic establishment.

The trilateral maritime cooperation involving India, Sri Lanka and Maldives can do precious little to keep the Chinese out of the Indian Ocean nor is it the raison d’être of this small club. But through this process, the three neighbours are keeping in close touch on vital maritime security issues which they would not have done had this process not started in the first place.

Also, this unassuming loose formation is set to expand further in the near future with probable inclusion of Mauritius and Seychelles which attended the 6 March event hosted by India as observers. The clout and capabilities of this process would be significantly enhanced once Mauritius and Seychelles are made full-fledged members of this NSA-level dialogue.

During the third NSA-Level meeting in Delhi, the participants reviewed and expressed satisfaction over the progress in the implementation of various activities in the identified areas, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. They also discussed new areas of cooperation including 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.

Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon led the Indian delegation and chaired the meeting. The Maldivian delegation was led by Col (Retd) Mohamed Nazim, Minister of Defence and National Security, and the Sri Lankan delegation by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary, Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.

Delegations from Mauritius and Seychelles also participated in the meeting as Guest countries. Motichand Seebah, Permanent Secretary in Prime Minister’s Office, represented Mauritius, while Ambassador Maurice Loustau-Lalanne, Principal Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, represented Seychelles.

India, Sri Lanka and Maldives launched the Trilateral Cooperation in Maritime Security in October 2011 at the first NSA-level Trilateral Meeting on Maritime Security Cooperation in Maldives. Since then it has become an annual event.

Shivshankar Menon put the things in perspective succinctly with these remarks: “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.”

This body is focusing essentially on three big areas: (i) trying to keep a tab on what is going on in the Indian Ocean, (ii) inculcate maritime domain awareness and (iii) to share information on what is happening in real time between the member countries.

“We have now actually put in place the systems so that we can share; we see the same picture of what is going on in the maritime area around us. We have trained our people we have nominated; we are putting in place the hardware so that we can share that information. The IMO (International Maritime Organization) has a system, for instance a long-range identification and tracking system for ships. We also have our own automatic identification system data which we now have one platform on which we will be sharing,” Menon said.

The next big step for this trilateral maritime cooperation would be its expansion by taking Seychelles and Mauritius in its fold. The two countries attended the Delhi event as observers for the first time and both have evinced their keenness to join the body.

The trilateral effort is a commendable step as it enhances practical cooperation among the member countries’ coastguards, navies and various institutions concerned with maritime security. A concrete deliverable of this trilateral effort is that they now have in place a platform which will actually enhance concrete responses to situations as diverse as piracy, pollution, drug running or counter-terrorism.

Counter-terrorism and piracy are on the front burner of this trilateral cooperation. This is what Shivashankar Menon had to say about these two issues: “Counterterrorism is still obviously an interest for all of us. When I say that we share information and we also consider joint action against illegal activities, it includes terrorism. But the immediate threat that we have been facing in the last few years was piracy. That fortunately at least in the Arabian Sea and off the Horn of Africa is down, due to a variety of factors not just what the three of us are doing with this, the whole world has been actually working at that problem. But even though the numbers may be down and it might have decreased because of the effort that we have put in, the primary source of the problem, which is on land, has not been solved.”

(The writer is a FirstPost columnist and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.)


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