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Time to Revitalise and Expand the Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives

Cdr Aman Saberwal was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+]
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  • March 22, 2016

    The Trilateral Maritime Security Co-operation Initiative was launched by India, Sri Lanka and Maldives in October 2011 at Male during the first National Security Adviser (NSA) level meeting on the subject. This was a welcome initiative involving the three littoral states to enhance maritime security in the neighbourhood. There were two subsequent meetings in 2013 and 2014. There has, however, been no meeting under this mechanism for over two years and a fresh impetus for this initiative seems to be lacking. Mauritius and Seychelles had attended the last meeting as ‘guests’. Their inclusion into an expanded initiative is also pending. There is an urgent need to revitalise and expand this construct given the growing maritime security challenges in the area. The expansion of Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) should also be considered as another driver for India to further strengthen this initiative at an early date in order to safe-guard and further consolidate strategic influence in the extended neighbourhood.

    The second NSA level meeting to take this initiative forward was held at Colombo in July 2013. During this meeting the three countries had agreed on a roadmap for Maritime Security Cooperation as follows:-

    1. Initiatives to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through measures such as sharing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) data, etc.
    2. Training and capacity building initiatives in areas of MDA, Search and Rescue (SAR), Oil Pollution response, etc.
    3. Joint activities including trilateral exercises, maintaining lines of communication on illegal maritime activities, formulation of marine oil pollution response contingency plan, and cooperation in legal and policy issues related to piracy.

    The third meeting of the NSAs on the subject was held in Delhi on 6 March 2014. They reviewed the progress and also discussed new areas of cooperation including hydrography, training in Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations, training on-board Indian Sail Training Ships, exchanges between think tanks and joint participation in adventure activities.

    Mauritius and Seychelles had also participated in the 2014 meeting as Guest countries for the first time.

    It had been decided at the last meeting in March 2014 that the next meeting would be held in Maldives. However, no further meeting of the NSAs to take this important initiative forward has been held since then. It is also pertinent to mention here that there have been reports that the Prime Minister was also scheduled to visit Maldives as part of his visit to the other three Indian Ocean countries that took place in March 2015, but it was cancelled at the last moment due to internal political developments in the Maldives.

    The Prime Minister’s visit to Mauritius and Seychelles in March 2015 was important from the stand point of maritime security of the region. His exposition of the mantra of SAGAR – Security and Growth for all in the Region – during the visit and the agreements in respect of Assumption and Agalega Islands were particularly important. In addition, the coastal radar chain commissioning and announcement of the provision of the second Dornier aircraft for Seychelles and joint commissioning of the Barracuda in Mauritius were also significant. During the visit, the Prime Minister had also laid out a five-point framework for India’s maritime engagement in the IOR. He also expressed the hope that Mauritius and Seychelles would also join the ongoing Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation Initiative between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. This was later reiterated by the External Affairs Minister.

    It can thus be seen that the importance of the trilateral initiative has been recognised at the highest levels of the government. The need for its expansion to include Mauritius and Seychelles has also been adequately recognised and articulated. It is thus all the more surprising that there has been no meeting of the NSAs to take this initiative forward for over two years now. There is also no official word of any such meeting being planned for in the near future. In the meantime, China continues to expand its activities in the Indian Ocean Region in various spheres.

    The reason for the lack of follow up action is not clear. It could have something to do with the ongoing internal political situation in the Maldives as it is the host for the next round of meetings. It could also be because of political differences among the three countries on various issues. Lack of consensus on the future of this construct, including on the format’s expansion to include Mauritius and Seychelles, could also be the reason. Mauritius was one of the principal sponsors of the resolution critical of Sri Lanka in the 2014 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. This could have possibly led to Sri Lankan reluctance on the issue of expansion, though this position ought to have been softened by the fact of the change of government in Sri Lanka. It could also be due to the lack of bureaucratic priority being assigned to the issue, as over a year has passed since support at the highest levels of government was expressed for the initiative.

    Whatever the reason for delay, there is a crying need to quickly resolve the differences, if any, that may exist between the counties on the issue. Necessary diplomatic capital needs to be invested to ensure that the meeting is held at an early date. Adequate priority needs to be accorded to this construct by all concerned especially in India, in order to ensure that the gains accrued so far through this construct are not frittered away.

    Maritime security challenges in the region continue to be an issue of concern and this effective regional mechanism needs to be strengthened to deal effectively with them. It is time that the mechanism is revived expeditiously and a meeting of the NSAs scheduled at an early date. The participation of Mauritius and Seychelles, either as observers or preferably as full members of an expanded initiative, is also strongly recommended.