National Maritime Foundation,
The second Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation meeting between India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka was held in Colombo last month. A roadmap for future cooperation was confirmed in the Outcome Document and some important aspects of the agreement among others were that, India is to provide Maldives and Sri Lanka access to its Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) data to monitor and track their own flagged merchant vessels. Sri Lanka and Maldives are also required to provide details as per International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations through diplomatic channels; utilisation of the Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) for exchange of unclassified information on white shipping (fair and safe shipping procedures).
Such specific arrangements are significant as India, in the recent years has been feeling that both of its southern neighbours are drifting away from its co-operative and consultative framework. It was particularly evident post the Fourth Eelam War in Sri Lanka and the controversial transfer of power in February 2012 in Maldives. Simultaneously, China is getting closer to these states, in terms of strategic, economic, political and cultural engagements.
India’s strategic relationship with Sri Lanka is different when compared to the Maldives. India voluntarily, perhaps unintentionally gave way for the Chinese influence to grow in Sri Lanka when it followed a hands-off approach post 1991. Sino-Sri Lankan relationship grew tremendously, particularly in the military dimension during the Fourth Eelam War (July 2006 to May 2009), when China provided the much needed arsenal to fight and defeat the LTTE.
However, invaluable Indian assistance to Sri Lanka in the maritime domain during the civil war cannot be underestimated. It could have been tougher for Sri Lanka without the Indian support in providing significant maritime intelligence inputs and radar equipment, as also providing the offshore patrol vessel “INS Saryu” and helicopters. Sri Lanka did acknowledge the Indian Navy's contribution as exceptional.
Lately, China has been making deep inroads into the economic and strategic spheres in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, India’s relations with Sri Lanka were also tested after India’s successive votes at the UNHRC in 2012 and 2013. Sri Lanka has also not been receptive to India’s renewed offers, the latest being the lukewarm response to India’s willingness to assist them in civilian nuclear energy. Though Indian entities are involved in vibrant business in Sri Lanka, it is only at low level strategic cooperation, the situation shall perhaps be addressed by the latest trilateral agreement on maritime security. This also possibly sidesteps the rhetorical opposition that may emanate from domestic compulsions of the Indian states, if the maritime agreement had to be signed bilaterally with Sri Lanka.