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#4076, 8 August 2013

IPCS Debate

India, Sri Lanka & Maldives: Regaining India's Strategic Space
T.C Karthikeyan
Associate Fellow,
National Maritime Foundation,
New Delhi
Email: tckmcc@gmail.com

The second Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation meeting between India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka was held in Colombo last month. A roadmap for future cooperation was confirmed in the Outcome Document and some important aspects of the agreement among others were that, India is to provide Maldives and Sri Lanka access to its Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) data to monitor and track their own flagged merchant vessels. Sri Lanka and Maldives are also required to provide details as per International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations through diplomatic channels; utilisation of the Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) for exchange of unclassified information on white shipping (fair and safe shipping procedures).

Such specific arrangements are significant as India, in the recent years has been feeling that both of its southern neighbours are drifting away from its co-operative and consultative framework. It was particularly evident post the Fourth Eelam War in Sri Lanka and the controversial transfer of power in February 2012 in Maldives. Simultaneously, China is getting closer to these states, in terms of strategic, economic, political and cultural engagements.

India’s strategic relationship with Sri Lanka is different when compared to the Maldives. India voluntarily, perhaps unintentionally gave way for the Chinese influence to grow in Sri Lanka when it followed a hands-off approach post 1991. Sino-Sri Lankan relationship grew tremendously, particularly in the military dimension during the Fourth Eelam War (July 2006 to May 2009), when China provided the much needed arsenal to fight and defeat the LTTE.

However, invaluable Indian assistance to Sri Lanka in the maritime domain during the civil war cannot be underestimated. It could have been tougher for Sri Lanka without the Indian support in providing significant maritime intelligence inputs and radar equipment, as also providing the offshore patrol vessel “INS Saryu” and helicopters. Sri Lanka did acknowledge the Indian Navy's contribution as exceptional.

Lately, China has been making deep inroads into the economic and strategic spheres in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, India’s relations with Sri Lanka were also tested after India’s successive votes at the UNHRC in 2012 and 2013. Sri Lanka has also not been receptive to India’s renewed offers, the latest being the lukewarm response to India’s willingness to assist them in civilian nuclear energy. Though Indian entities are involved in vibrant business in Sri Lanka, it is only at low level strategic cooperation, the situation shall perhaps be addressed by the latest trilateral agreement on maritime security. This also possibly sidesteps the rhetorical opposition that may emanate from domestic compulsions of the Indian states, if the maritime agreement had to be signed bilaterally with Sri Lanka.

In recent months, India is finding it a bit challenging to maintain its influence on the political and economic affairs of Maldives, particularly post February 2012; and the GMR episode in November 2012 is evident. There were also open statements from some prominent Maldivian politicians and administrators to engage with China and to shun India in economic and strategic cooperation. Furthermore, the former President Nasheed also claimed that just a week before his ouster in February 2012, there was pressure on him from within Maldives to sign a defense cooperation agreement with China, which he ultimately refused to do.

India’s waning initial vigour in pursuing its strategic initiatives to their logical conclusion is resulting in missed opportunities to forge a stronger strategic partnership with the Maldives. To increase its strategic presence and cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, India signed a bilateral pact with the Maldives in August 2009. Accordingly, India agreed to set up a network of 26 radars across the Maldives’ 26 atolls, which will be linked to the Indian coastal command to effectively monitor the vast uninhabited Maldivian islands against possible terrorist intrusion and activities of piracy in its EEZ. But time overruns has created a situation of uncertainty.

According to one of the Indian government officials who was closely involved in the process, hardly 4 to 5 radars were installed in the Maldivian atolls till April 2013; visibly a clear contrast compared with the United States’ active role in pursuing and establishing some radar units in Maldives in a short span of time. But the latest maritime cooperation agreement has given fresh impetus for India to strengthen its bilateral relations and thus regain its ground in the strategic space of Maldives.

India’s remarkable maritime role in safeguarding the security, sovereignty and integrity of both the Maldives and Sri Lanka is credible. Accordingly, the latest trilateral agreement enables India to continue its role in the region to patrol and safeguard the EEZs of its southern neighbours. Some of the aspects of the agreement specifically keep the Indian Navy and its security apparatus of being informed about what is happening in its southern neighborhood, thereby avoiding any exigency of being surprised by adverse developments in its vicinity.

Apart from providing the best opportunity and an effective official mechanism to address some of the maritime security concerns shared by these three nations in the narrower South Asian sphere; for India, this agreement shall also be taken as a precursor in forming a robust strategic relationship with other littoral/island nations like Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, etc. in the broader sphere of the Indian Ocean Region. 

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