India, Sri Lanka, Maldives firm up maritime security roadmap

piracyAgainst the backdrop of the increasing strategic salience of the Indian Ocean and China’s rapidly expanding footprints in the region, India has signed a trilateral maritime agreement with Sri Lanka and the Maldives that seeks to buttress counter-piracy cooperation among the three countries.

India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Maldives’ Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim held a trilateral meeting in the Lankan capital Colombo July 8-9.

The meeting culminated in the sealing of an ambitious outcome document which lays out the roadmap for expanding maritime cooperation between the three nations for the security of the Indian Ocean region. The roadmap for trilateral maritime cooperation includes a set of important initiatives which includes, among other things, the use of the Indian Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) Data Centre by the Maldives and Sri Lanka to monitor and track Maldives and Sri Lanka-flagged merchant vessels owned by them. The three countries also agreed on the use of the Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) for exchange of unclassified information on white shipping and sharing Automatic Identification System (AIS) data in a trilateral format over the MSIS platform.

The pact envisages increased training of personnel from Sri Lanka and the Maldives in India in the area of maritime domain awareness and scaling up maritime linkages in the field of search and rescue. This will entail India providing expertise and technical assistance in setting up Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres in Sri Lanka and Maldives, coordination in relaying and receiving distress alerts and safety messages, and, conduct of SAR training in India. Bolstering mechanisms for Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance, boosting communication on illegal maritime activities and enhancing marine pollution response are other key features of the newly-minted trilateral maritime cooperation framework.

The three countries also decided to upgrade biennial trilateral exercise ‘DOSTI’ (In Hindi, it means friendship) by conducting table top exercises and seminars on maritime issues in every alternate year. Another important development that will bear on their maritime cooperation in the long run includes the setting up of a trilateral sub-group focused on legal and policy issues related to piracy.

China’s increased foray into the Indian Ocean and South Asian countries is the subtext of the trilateral maritime pact. Indian officials have repeatedly denied any design to contain China, but Beijing’s accelerated engagement with South Asian countries, which New Delhi regards as its sphere of influence, has prompted India to draw Sri Lanka and the Maldives into a tighter maritime embrace.

China’s so-called string-of-pearls strategy, which entails building critical ports and infrastructural facilities in neighbouring countries of India like Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Siitwe in Myanmar, has caused much unease among the strategic-diplomatic establishment in India. While Sri Lanka and the Maldives have assured India that their burgeoning relations with Beijing are not targeted at New Delhi, India has crafted a calibrated strategy to scale up its relations with countries in the ambient region. The trilateral maritime pact is a crucial part of India’s proactive diplomacy to forge cooperative mechanisms to protect its critical security and resource interests in the Indian Ocean region.



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