The Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) was held in early August in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A meeting of the deputy national security advisors (DNSAs) from India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives discussed security cooperation across “four pillars” including maritime security, human trafficking, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity. This was the first such meeting of the DNSAs of these three countries. Held virtually, the CSC also involved officials from three observer countries: Bangladesh, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. The three observer countries will be elevated to full members at the next national security advisor-level meeting scheduled to take place in the Maldives later this year.
The reason for the CSC is clear. Growing security concerns around maritime safety and security, human and drug trafficking, arms trafficking along maritime routes, terrorism and violent extremism, humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR), and cybersecurity are some of the common worries for the six countries. Recent marine polluting events in the Indian Ocean Region including those of MV Xpress Pearl, MT New Diamond, and MV Wakashio played a big part in the group focusing attention on marine environment issues.
China is also a significant driver for India’s Indian Ocean outreach. The logic in bringing additional members to the CSC is also a recognition of competition with China for the support of these countries. Beijing has been making enormous efforts in all of the Indian Ocean countries to establish influence, and such efforts have compelled India to enhance its own outreach in the region. China’s presence through ports and projects in the region is significant. Its military base in Djibouti as well as its managing of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka are all constant reminders to New Delhi of Beijing’s growing naval presence close to Indian waters. There are even reports that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could eventually establish a “special naval fleet for the Indian Ocean.” In addition, China has been sending warships to India’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Andaman Islands.
The last national security advisor-(NSA) level talks among India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives were held in November 2020, where a decision was also made to change the name from “trilateral NSA meeting on maritime security” to the Colombo Security Conclave. The NSA trilateral dialogue began in 2011 but has been in limbo since 2014. Significantly, the three countries revived the trilateral meeting in 2020 because of the changing Indian Ocean strategic dynamics. Mauritius and the Seychelles also attended the 2020 meeting at the level of senior officials. The 2020 trilateral meeting at the level of the NSAs and the CSC are also a reflection of the new reality of subregional diplomacy, which India has attempted to foster in the neighborhood in the last few years. India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a preference for subregional groupings given the stalemate in regional diplomacy in South Asia. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has not made much headway despite Modi’s push for it in the initial years after he came to power.
There has been intense competition and rivalry between India and China to win friends in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Even though the Indian Ocean is India’s own backyard, the growing Chinese presence and influence has pushed India into security activism in the region. Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh hosted the defense ministers of the Indian Ocean region in February 2021 on the sidelines of India’s biennial Aero India air show held in Bangalore in early February. Further, Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar paid visits to the Maldives and Mauritius in February.
The Colombo Security Conclave now has a Secretariat based in Colombo and the August meeting was organized by Sri Lanka. In addition to the big thematic focus on maritime security, the countries also discussed shoring up capabilities through joint exercises involving the navies and coast guards. India reportedly extended its full support to strengthen maritime safety and security in the region. That India and especially the Indian Navy has remained the first responder in any regional disaster says a lot about the Indian desire to convert that role into a more formal one through groupings like the CSC.
While China remains an important agenda for India’s Indian Ocean security activism, its partners may not be willing to join a group that may be perceived as overtly anti-China. This will be the case particularly with countries like Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. The two countries have maintained a rhetoric of neutrality and not picked a side in China-U.S. strategic competition, although it is easy to glean which way each of the two countries lean. MD Mufassir Rashid, a Bangladeshi scholar, wrote that the CSC “as a sub-regional organization in IOR is a ‘must needed’ one.” But he added that the platform must stay clear of “the current QUAD-China face-offs,” arguing that even though the revival of the platform was an Indian effort, New Delhi should not bring into it the India-China rivalry. There is a strong view among the smaller neighbors like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka that platforms like the CSC should “transcend beyond the QUAD-China debate and operate as a sub-regional forum for non-traditional security concerns as it is the only operating organization in IOR at this moment.” Similarly, Lailufar Yasmin, a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka, pointed out Bangladesh explained clearly that “it will not join any security pact or alliance which is targeted against any country.”
Nevertheless, from an Indian perspective, the growing subregional framework through the CSC is a further example of the importance of the six countries in India’s strategic vision for the Indian Ocean. India has strong partnerships with each of these countries bilaterally, but this grouping will aid regional cohesion and collaboration. India has assisted these countries in terms of building up their human and material capacities, especially Mauritius and Seychelles, but the new Conclave can build greater synergies among the six participating countries. While this is India’s vision for the grouping, ultimately it will depend on India’s material capacity to deliver.