A trilateral meeting between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka on maritime security cooperation was held recently in Colombo. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval represented India in this meeting. This trilateral security dialogue was revived after a gap of six years. It comes at the time when India is giving momentum to its engagements in the Indo-Pacific Region.
The meeting between these three countries is one of the several high profile engagements on India’s part in the past few months that focuses on the Indo-Pacific Region. Two phases of Malabar Exercise (one in the Bay of Bengal and the other in Arabian Sea), External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar’s visit to the UAE, Bahrain and Seychelles and India-Singapore-Thailand Naval Exercise have preceded this meeting.
While China’s expansionism has been at the core of India’s manoeuvres across the Indo-Pacific Region, it important to balance traditional and non-traditional security concerns as both affect any country’s security and economy.
While maritime security is an important area of cooperation, these three countries also need to focus more on the non-traditional security areas such as climate change and anti-terrorism cooperation. Since non-traditional issues transcend beyond the national boundaries cooperative approach between nations is needed to deal with such challenges.
Besides in the current geopolitical situation, it may take time to build trust and consensus on traditional security issues especially between India and Sri Lanka. India’s principal concern has been China’s ever-expanding influence in the neighbourhood. Apart from Pakistan, China has been making inroads in India’s neighbourhood through various countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Maldives was also previously inclined towards China during Abdulla Yameen’s presidency but later with the change in president the country has warmed up to India. India on its part has responded energetically to Maldives’ friendly overtures. It implies that in a group that has India and Maldives, Sri Lanka might find itself isolated on strategic matters owing to its close relations with China.
Regional integration in South Asia, in the form of SAARC, has failed to yield desired results due to India-Pakistan disputes. Now if India, Maldives and Sri Lanka are looking to engage at sub-regional level, they would do well to take lessons from the SAARC. These three countries could focus more on non-traditional areas to develop cooperation and derive benefits.
Climate change and anti-terrorism cooperation would be the two areas which pose a similar challenge to all the three countries. In the past few years, India as well as its neighbourhood has witnessed several natural disasters, especially heavy unseasonal rains, flooding and cyclones. Maldives and Sri Lanka, both island nations, are vulnerable to the impact of climate change. India, Maldives and Sri Lanka are signatories to the Paris Agreement. India has been one of the most vocal supporters of environment conservation and addressing the climate change issue. While speaking at the G-20 Summit recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that climate change must be fought in an integrated and holistic manner. This principle could be implemented at international level as well with a common climate strategy between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Anti-terrorism cooperation is an area that remains underdeveloped between these three countries although this issue was addressed in the trilateral meeting. While terrorism is a global challenge and India, Maldives and Sri Lanka have been dealing with terrorism and radicalization, it is important for the three to put in concerted efforts to effectively face this threat.
Since the advent of ISIS, there have been increasing numbers of cases of radicalization across the world. In South Asia, Maldives has witnessed significant radicalization. Maldives has been the country with one of the highest ratios of per capita recruits to ISIS. Similarly ISIS ideology had inspired the perpetrators of Easter bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019. Maldives’ and Sri Lanka’s proximity to southern Indian states, especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu, require India to be vigilant of this threat.
In case of India, Maldives and Sri Lanka, another challenging area is the balance in relations. It is important to note that at present India enjoys closer relations with Maldives than Sri Lanka. Since Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has become the president of Maldives in 2018, India-Maldives relations have been on an upswing. But India’s relations with Sri Lanka are not at the same level. So the trilateral cooperation is an opportunity for India to build equal relations with Sri Lanka as well. Only concerted efforts from the three countries could lead to a convergence in dealing with traditional and non-traditional security threats.
**The author is a Fellow at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies**