India’s own string of pearls: Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles and Maldives

David Brewster

On 7 March,¬†Shiv Shankar Menon, India’s National Security Advisor, announced¬†that the Indian Ocean island states of Seychelles and Mauritius had joined India’s naval arrangement with Sri Lanka and the Maldives in a new Indian Ocean security grouping that some have called the ‘IO-5’.

The new arrangement signals a significant consolidation of India’s leading security role among the Indian Ocean islands. It is a manifestation of last year’s¬†announcement by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh¬†that henceforth India should be seen as a ‘net security provider to the region.’ While Mr Singh did not specify the boundaries of India’s ‘region’ it was clear that much of the initial focus was on the Indian Ocean islands.

India has held joint naval exercises with Sri Lanka for some years and in 2012 this was expanded to trilateral exercises with the Maldives Coast Guard. Now the Seychelles and Mauritius have joined the three in a new maritime security grouping that will cover much of the central and western Indian Ocean. Menon also foreshadowed that in future the arrangement may be expanded to encompass the Bay of Bengal or that a similar arrangement may replicated with relevant Bay of Bengal states.

For decades India has been the de facto security guarantor of these island states. In the 1980s, India intervened or threatened intervention in Mauritius (1983), the Seychelles (1986), the Maldives (1988) and Sri Lanka (1987-1990) to prevent attempted coups or to address civil strife. India also played a significant, if largely undisclosed, role in ending the Sri Lankan civil war and the destruction of the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

Since the 1980s, India has slowly developed a role as a maritime security provider to these states. This has included provision of patrol boats, helicopters, training, senior military secondments and hydrographic services to the Sri Lankan, Maldives , Mauritius and Seychelles navies or coast guards. Over the last few years, India has also installed coastal radar networks in the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. There have also been rumours of the possible development of an Indian security presence, in one form or another, in the Maldives and Mauritius.

The most immediate issues to be addressed by the new grouping will be the sharing of information and development of capabilities to combat maritime terrorism, piracy and illegal fishing. But these new arrangements are likely to have long term significance for India’s security role throughout the Indian Ocean.

The new security initiative follows increasing concerns in New Delhi about China’s growing presence in the region, most recently including the exercise conducted by¬†three Chinese naval vessels in the eastern Indian Ocean in January.

The Chinese exercise was in stark contrast with India’s Exercise Milan (pictured above), which was held in Port Blair in India’s Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal only a few days later. This multilateral exercise included the navies and coastguards of some 16 states in addition to India. This year’s event was the largest ever and was a truly Indo-Pacific affair, with representatives from South Asia (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives), many Southeast Asian states (Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia and the Philippines), Australasia (Australia and New Zealand), and even a strong representation from the western Indian Ocean (Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles and Tanzania). Exercise Milan is primarily an exercise in Indian naval diplomacy rather than an exercise for practising technical skills. Since its inception in 1995, the biennial exercise has focused on building relationships and confidence among senior naval officers of participating states.

Exercise Milan is foremost an expression of the expansion of India’s area of strategic interest as it grows as a major power, and India’s interest in fostering greater defence cooperation throughout the Indian Ocean region and beyond. Milan has now become an important and highly successful part of India’s growing ‘soft’ military power. The breadth of participants in this year’s Exercise Milan, extending from East Africa to the Western Pacific, is a major demonstration of India’s growing Indo-Pacific reach. The contrast between India’s cooperative engagement with the region and China’s unilateral demonstrations could not be starker. Indeed, it is arguable that China’s unilateralism may be more indicative of strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean than of its strength.

The new security partnership follows last month’s announcement by India and Seychelles of a ‘Blue Economy’ partnership to¬†tap the oceanic resources in the Seychelles’ vast EEZ. This will rely in part on hydrographic survey work the Indian Navy has been carrying out in the Seychelles for years. Both the Seychelles and Mauritius have been pushing the ‘Blue Economy’ concept as a route to economic development. India may also enter into Blue Economy partnerships with Mauritius and the Maldives (both of which also have huge EEZs).

The new maritime security arrangement between the five Indian Ocean states represents a major step forward in the region’s security architecture. For the first time India has explicitly taken a security leadership role in the Indian Ocean. In presaging the possible extension or replication of such arrangements to the Bay of Bengal, New Delhi has flagged a new and much more active security role in our region.


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