Sri Lanka Perspectives – November 2020: Continuing Indo-Pacific focus on Sri Lanka
by R Hariharan on 08 Dec 2020 0 Comment

India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral meeting


India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Colombo to participate in the 4th edition of India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral forum on maritime security hosted by Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s defence secretary Kamal Gunaratne and Maldive’s defence minister Ms Mariya Didi participated in the meeting. Though the trilateral meeting was supposed to be an annual feature, the last time it had met was in 2014. The meeting decided to expand its agenda beyond maritime security, to include threats of radicalisation, terrorism and drug trafficking, which were causing concern to the three nations. They are said to have agreed to hold deputy NSA-level working group meetings twice a year for operational cooperation.


Interest in reviving the meeting showed the increased desire of the three countries to understand each other and coordinate their maritime security preparedness as Indian Ocean is critical for Indo-Pacific strategic security. Seychelles and Mauritius, which had attended the 2014 meeting as observers, virtually attended the meeting of the Colombo trilateral meet. Bangladesh, which was invited to participate, could not participate as the concerned official was indisposed.


The joint statement issued after the meeting said: “The three countries also exchanged views on common security threats and agreed to broad base cooperation by expanding the scope to improve intelligence sharing and include issues like terrorism, radicalization, extremism, drugs, arms and human traf?cking, money laundering, cyber security and effect of climate change on maritime environment.”


“The past deliberations and outcomes have helped the three countries in improving close coordination in maritime security of the region. These were supplemented by Deputy NSA level meetings for sustained engagements and implementation of the discussions at the NSA level meetings,” the statement added.


Discussions on maritime cooperation included, “maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, joint exercises, capacity building, maritime security and threats, marine pollution, and maritime underwater heritage”.


There are three contexts to the revival of interest in the trilateral meeting, after a six year gap. The original context of trilateral forum was regional - to protect maritime security interests of the vast EEZ area of the three countries, with Indian Navy playing a major role. Otherwise, it would not be possible for the two island nations to secure their maritime interests in their vast EEZ (Sri Lanka 517,000 sq km and Maldives one million sq km).


There is also the regional context of India firming up and enlarging its economic and security cooperation with the two island nations in the face of increased Chinese economic and security forays under the garb of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Lastly, the quest of the newly formed Quad multilateral alliance, led by the US with India, Japan and Australia, to improve mutual cooperation and security with the two island nations, which have become the focus of China’s increased muscle flexing in the Indo-Pacific.


Equally significant is the trilateral meeting follows a series of high level meetings with dignitaries from India, the US and China with their Sri Lankan counterparts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a virtual summit meeting with his Sri Lanka counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa end-September. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Sri Lanka and Maldives (October 2020) after attending 2+2 ministerial meetings with Indian counterparts.  Of course, a high powered Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi, member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo and director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission visited Colombo in October, as part China’s efforts to reinforce its links with Sri Lanka.


During his visit, Doval also called upon President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The President’s media division statement on the meeting said the President and the NSA “engaged in a highly fruitful discussion aimed at further strengthening all forms of bilateral cooperation.” It said the major topics discussed at the meeting included Indo-Lanka security cooperation, maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean region, and infrastructure development in Sri Lanka. Both sides agreed that the infrastructure development projects initiated with the assistance of India should be completed expeditiously. It said, the NSA “expressed India’s willingness to identify and invest in new fields that can contribute to the economic growth in Sri Lanka.” 


In this context, the India-Japan-Sri Lanka Eastern Carrier Terminal (ECT) project had been pending since a memorandum was signed 2019. There is a distinct possibility that this project was discussed during the meeting. Earlier in the month, India and Sri Lanka signed a memorandum of understanding for implementing community development projects to the tune of SL Rs 600 million. The MoU, signed initially in 2005, has been extended every five years. The projects to be executed include adding to the emergency hospital care ambulance service, housing projects and the New Jaffna Cultural Centre as well as small scale development projects like resettlement housing, livelihood, employment, medical centres, hospital infrastructure development and women’s empowerment.


President Rajapaksa is keen on ending Sri Lanka’s over reliance on foreign debts. So there is no doubt that the President would like to develop closer economic cooperation with India. Interestingly, India’s Finance Minister, Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman, was invited to deliver the keynote speech at the Sri Lanka Economic Summit on December 1, attended by the President.  



South Asia Security Trends, December 2020,


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