Last week, Colombo hosted an India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral maritime security dialogue. The meeting saw the revival of the national security advisor (NSA)-level dialogue among the three countries, which began almost a decade ago in 2011. That the meeting took place six years after the last edition in 2014 is significant. Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives are rcritical maritime neighbors to India in the Indian Ocean region and there have been continuous efforts by both India and China to win friends and favors in Colombo and Male.
The NSA-level talks are also a demonstration of the Indian intent to push subregional diplomacy, which has been gaining traction in India’s foreign policy in the last few years. The Modi government has made efforts to engage in subregional diplomacy as a useful track following the near-complete halt in regional diplomacy in South Asia under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
For the Colombo trilateral, the Indian side was represented by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval whereas the Maldives sent its defense minister, Mariya Didi, and Sri Lanka was represented by Defense Secretary Maj. Gen. (retd) Kamal Gunaratne. Mauritius and the Seychelles were also present virtually at the level of senior officials. With the goal of encouraging meaningful maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives discussed a number of areas for possible collaboration such as maritime domain awareness (MDA), humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), joint military exercises, capacity building, maritime security threats, marine pollution, and maritime underwater heritage. The Heads of Delegations decided that they would meet periodically to maintain the momentum of the dialogue and to ensure timely execution of the decisions taken at the NSA-level meetings. According to the joint statement, a decision was also made to institute deputy NSA-level working group meetings biannually for cooperation at the operational level.
So far, there have been several iterations of the trilateral meetings at the NSA-level. The first, hosted by the Maldives, was held in Male in 2011, following which Sri Lanka hosted the second edition. The third was held in New Delhi in 2014, which was attended also by Mauritius and the Seychelles as “guest countries.”
Following the first trilateral meeting, the India-Maldives “DOSTI” joint coast guard exercise in 2012 added Sri Lanka and was held as a trilateral exercise. The India-Maldives DOSTI exercises have been going on since 1991 and are aimed at strengthening capabilities of the three partners in the area of search and rescue operations, combating piracy and armed robbery, damage control, and casualty evacuation at sea. India and Sri Lanka also have held bilateral naval exercises called SLINEX since 2005. The latest iteration, the eighth, was held off Trincomalee in Sri Lanka in October 2020. India’s official statement on the exercise noted that the synergistic approach developed by the two navies for “seamless coordination” was in evidence when the two navies came together in September 2020 to assist MT New Diamond, a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), that caught fire off the East Coast of Sri Lanka.
While broader maritime security, anti-piracy, and HADR are important components of the growing India-Sri Lanka-Maldives strategic narrative, the real worry for India is growing Chinese activism in the Indian Ocean region. China’s efforts at cultivating the Indian Ocean littoral states have been a concern for New Delhi. In response, New Delhi has pursued many paths to build rapport with these neighbors, including bilateral, trilateral, and minilateral conversations in the region.
While India is a resident Indian Ocean power and has its own advantages, there are capacity gaps in India’s ability to play a sustained or dominant role. Meanwhile, China has the economic and military wherewithal to expand its military presence in the Indian Ocean and has been developing serious inroads into the region through bases and other strategic networks. It is these that India is most concerned about and to which it is responding.
While India is stepping up its efforts in naval modernization, these are capital intensive and time-consuming projects. The small budget allocations for the Indian Navy are not helpful either. Therefore, India has also entered into a series of partnerships with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia, Japan, and the United States, to offset the growing Chinese influence as well as to enhance India’s own capabilities. The logistic agreements that India has signed with a number of countries — including the United States, Australia, France, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan — in recent years are a demonstration of the Indian intent to enhance the geographical reach of the Indian Navy, and also to strengthen the combined capability mix that is available to deal with China’s aggressive maneuvers in the Indian Ocean region. It is also an important tool for messaging both to its friends and foes.
Meanwhile, even as India pursues a neighborhood first approach, it has also acknowledged the limitations of regional groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which came to a grinding halt a few years ago. Modi had reached out to the SAARC nations when he came to office in 2014 but the bonhomie did not last long. Therefore, India has energized other regional groupings such as BIMSTEC and subregional arrangements such as the BBIN and India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral. While the subregional initiatives have primarily focused on connectivity and similar issues, India is also exploring the possibility of engaging in subregional security cooperation.
But subregional initiatives are not free from the state of bilateral relations with these countries. As K. Yhome explained in a recent essay, the nature and framework of bilateral political relations will have an impact on these subregional initiatives. The case of the NSA-level trilateral maritime dialogue between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives is a case in point. The talks were stalled from 2014 primarily because of India’s poor relations with Maldives under then-President Abdulla Yameen. India, as a big state, has to be mindful of the needs and aspirations of its much smaller neighbors and has to be able to adapt to meet their requirements.