Colombo-Delhi-Male dialogue: Looking beyond maritime security

India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives agreed to expand the scope of intelligence sharing, including terrorism and cybersecurity, at the meeting to discuss common security threats, writes Sugeeswara Senadhira for South Asia Monitor

Sugeeswara Senadhira Nov 30, 2020
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Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval’s visit to Colombo to attend the 4th National Security Adviser-level Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation among India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives provided an important forum for another round of Colombo-New Delhi high-level briefing on bilateral, regional, and international developments. The issues discussed with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa 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 and Sri Lanka urged India to increase investments by giving consideration to enhance Sri Lanka’s exports.

Doval expressed India's willingness to identify and invest in new fields that can contribute to the economic growth in Sri Lanka. "NSA Ajit Doval called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa & had a productive discussion. NSA Doval expressed hope that the India-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship would diversify and deepen further under the strong leadership of PM @narendramodi and President @GotabayaR @MEAIndia," the High Commission of India in Colombo said in a Tweet.

Fruitful discussion

President Rajapaksa and Doval engaged in a highly fruitful discussion aimed at further strengthening all forms of bilateral relations. The cordial discussion continued for nearly two hours as the two leaders exchanged ideas on the whole gamut of issues. Doval also called on Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and conveyed greetings from Prime Minister Modi. Premier Rajapaksa asked the senior Indian official for continued assistance to Sri Lanka in its bilateral help.

The high-level trilateral meeting was also attended by Maldives Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi and Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Major General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne. The tripartite meetings designed to initiate collective action on maritime security, including maritime domain awareness, legal regimes, train in search and rescue, maritime pollution response, information sharing, curbing piracy drugs arms and contraband trafficking in the Indian Ocean region.

Doval and Rajapaksa was on the high-level team set up for direct communications during the last phase of the fight between the Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009-09. They managed to ensure top-level intelligence exchanges between the two countries and safeguard the understanding between New Delhi and Colombo at the height of the war.

This understanding helped Sri Lanka to continue the attacks on the LTTE until the terrorist movement was crushed completely and withstand enormous pressure brought in by the Western powers to stop the war.  

This was Doval's second official visit to Sri Lanka this year. In January, he visited Colombo and discussed a range of bilateral issues, including strengthening cooperation in defence, intelligence sharing, and maritime security with President Rajapaksa.

Importance of Indian Ocean Region

Although both sides refrained from divulging details of the discussions on the pending bilateral projects, the political analysts are of the view that considering the long duration of the discussion, it was very likely that the issues pertaining to Indian Ocean’s importance and the interests shown by foreign powers were discussed. They pointed out that one-on-one discussion has come amid the heightening geopolitical contest in the Indian Ocean.

It assumed significance amid Colombo’s heightened diplomatic engagement with Beijing, focussed on Sri Lanka’s economic recovery since COVID-19 struck, including a request for $1 billion in loans this year. Recently, a high level Chinese delegation from Beijing visited Colombo, and it was followed by the visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The Colombo discussions added more significance as it involved India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Maldives’ President Ibrahim Solih has enthusiastically welcomed a greater role for India, as well as the United States, in the Indian Ocean Region.

Both President and Doval stressed the need to further consolidate mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation which is already at a very satisfactory level.

Following the meeting on Nov 28, Rajapaksa tweeted: “Had a fruitful discussion with Shri @Ajitdovalkumar, NSA #India this evening. National Sec, Sec in the Indian Ocean, new Indian investments, continuation of infrastructure proj. & strengthening bilateral relations between #SriLanka & #India were the areas discussed at the meeting.”

'India first' approach

Sri Lankan leaders have repeatedly assured India that Colombo is absolutely committed to an “India first” approach when it comes to security, and would not permit its soil to be used for any hostile acts against India. At the same time, Sri Lanka continues its cooperation with China for its economic development. 

Foreign Minister and Leader of the House-Parliament, Dinesh Gunawardena was the chief guest at the Tripartite Dialogue, in which the three countries agreed on several steps to further strengthen the valuable cooperation and also contributes to peace and security in the region.

The high-level trilateral meeting is designed to initiate collective action on maritime security, including maritime domain awareness, legal regimes, train in search and rescue, maritime pollution response, information sharing, curbing piracy drugs arms, and contraband trafficking in the Indian Ocean region.

India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives agreed to expand the scope of intelligence sharing, including terrorism and cybersecurity at the meeting to discuss common security threats.

President Rajapaksa, in his meetings with foreign leaders, made it very clear that Sri Lanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy, and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs. What Sri Lanka needs is development assistance and foreign investments and, according to analysts, that was the message given to Doval too. 

(The writer is Director (International Media), Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at sugeeswara@gmail.com)

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