The simultaneous November 2020 visits by India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Dr S Jaishakar and National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, to island-states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) took place in the backdrop of the recently-concluded Malabar 2020 naval exercise involving the informal grouping of India, Australia, Japan and the US, called the ‘Quad’. The Malabar Exercise and the renewed vigour in the Quad countries’ interaction have now become the focal point in shaping not only the narrative but also in laying the foundation for the evolving global and regional security architecture based around the idea of the Indo-Pacific region.
The NSA’s Visit
Doval’s November 27-28 Colombo visit was aimed at reviving the NSA-level Trilateral Meeting and the Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation, now renamed as the ‘Maritime and Security Cooperation’ with Maldives and Sri Lanka, in which Mauritius and Seychelles participated as observers. Owing to logistical reasons, Bangladesh, another observer-invitee, did not participate.
Trilateral cooperation had begun in 2012 with India and the Maldives inviting Sri Lanka to join their Joint Coast Guard exercise called ‘Dosti’, which was initiated after the first NSA-level interaction in 2011. Owing to the momentum gained, two other IOR countries, Mauritius and Seychelles, were invited as observers during the third NSA-level interaction in 2014. However, changing domestic political dynamics in the Maldives brought a hiatus to the trilateral cooperation, which has been revived only now.
The Colombo consultations gain significance in this context because it reflects the maturity in bilateral ties among India and its southern maritime neighbours, as well as the evolving Indian Ocean security architecture. This is because in its initial format, India’s maritime cooperation was limited to island-states in India’s southern maritime neighbourhood. However, with the shared intention to include Bangladesh as an observer, the current initiative seems to be a nascent step towards reflecting the regional maritime space within IOR.
Independent of the trilateral, during a bilateral meeting, Doval and Sri Lanka’s President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, revived cooperation in other fields that had been dormant for some time. The two sides, along with Japan, agreed to proceed with the commercially and strategically important Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) project. The ECT was mooted in 2016 with a framework in which the Sri Lankan Port Authority (SLPA) would possess 51 per cent stake and the remainder with India, as well as Japan, which has now become an investment partner instead of a lender.
The EAM’s Visit
While NSA Doval was re-engaging India’s immediate and traditional partners, EAM Jaishankar was expanding India’s engagement horizons in the broader context of the IOR. The significance of his November 24-28 visits to Bahrain, UAE and Seychelles is visible not necessarily in the outcomes but more in the choice of the destinations.
The visits to Bahrain and UAE were aimed at ensuring continuity in regular bilateral engagement and deepening ties, including people-to-people contacts, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Seychelles, two sides discussed the future of their strategic partnership in the post-COVID-19 era. The significance of this visit also lies in Seychelles’s centrality both in the context of India’s ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ framework in the IOR and New Delhi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy.
Jaishankar’s outreach in Seychelles was also aimed at reinforcing bilateral ties and reaching out to the newly elected government of its Indian origin President, Wavel Ramkalawan, which took charge in October 2020. For India, the importance of engaging with the new dispensation lies also in ensuring that Seychelles’s domestic politics does not impinge on bilateral and regional engagement. This is because from 1977 until Ramkalawan’s electoral victory, Seychelles had been governed by a single political party, albeit with occasional nomenclature changes. The objective of Jaishankar’s visit was thus to engage with Ramkalawan, who had thus far been a long-time leader of Seychelles’s opposition party; and also to ensure the revival of India’s strategic undertaking in Seychelles’s Assumption Island, agreed upon by the previous dispensation in 2018, which had been stalled by the then opposition.
Thus, India’s outreach to the new government can be viewed as an act of reassurance on New Delhi’s part and as an attempt to de-hyphenate domestic politics from bilateral and regional engagements. This is also because in this decade, India experienced first-hand, the effects of the toxic confluence between domestic electoral politics and strategic engagement, with Maldives and Sri Lanka being cases in point.
Reconstructing the IOR
As part of the Trilateral Maritime and Security Cooperation, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka have also agreed to establish a Regional Maritime Security Secretariat in Colombo, staffed by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence personnel, to coordinate all aspects to maritime security between the three countries. However, the inclusion of observers offers the potential to expand the scope of India’s Indian Ocean outlook to encompass the IOR as a whole, with prospects of expansion of the regional grouping in the future.
This begs the question: will the proposed secretariat at Colombo be the gateway for India’s IOR outreach and a vehicle for institutional mechanism for future engagement—beyond President Rajapaksa’s stated position that Sri Lanka’s foreign and security policy is ‘India First’?