India’s Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra paid a two day official visit to Sri Lanka. During the visit he called on the President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne. During the visit, both countries agreed to enhance their regional security cooperation including cooperation in dealing with non-traditional security issues such as human trafficking and drug smuggling. Capacity building and training of armed forces of Sri Lanka has been the core area of cooperation between the two countries. In this regard both the countries agreed to increase the number of training personnel from Sri Lanka.
As part of the visit, the Indian delegation participated in the 6th Indo-Sri Lankan Defence Dialogue. Since 2012, the dialogue has become a platform to review the security and defence cooperation issues between the two countries. India’s keen interest in increasing its regional security cooperation with neighbouring countries as part of it’s “neighbourhood first” policy and changed political and security environment in Sri Lanka presents an opportunity to increase cooperation in the security sphere between the two countries. In the past, training of Sri Lankan defence personnel at Wellington Defence Staff Service College, Tamil Nadu had become an issue and the Indian government had to restrain the services provided to Sri Lankan defence personnel.
Despite opposition from certain quarters, India-Sri Lanka Defence Cooperation has been sustained for long. The trilateral India, Sri Lanka and Maldives naval exercise called ‘Dosti’ is in place since 1992. The 14th trilateral exercise was held in Maldives last year. To strengthen military ties, India hosted a 160 member delegation of Sri Lankan military personnel and their families last year in Gaya. The same year, India also handed over a second advanced off-shore patrol vessel to Sri Lanka. Due to non-functioning of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), at the regional level both the countries are using the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) platform to enhance security ties and have participated in the joint military drill of BIMSTEC countries in September 2018.
Despite the various joint mechanisms in place to enhance cooperation in defence and security spheres between the two countries, there is a need for greater convergence. Given the strategic geographical position of Sri Lanka, it would like to position itself as a hub in the Indian Ocean and is engaging with Indian Ocean littoral countries in a manner that can serve its maritime and security interests. Since Sri Lanka’s security and economic development is closely amalgamated with security of Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s advocacy to rule based maritime order is evident in its various activities. In this regard, an international conference was held in Colombo titled “Indian Ocean: Defining Our Future”, three hundred representatives from forty Indian Ocean littoral states participated in it.
Sri Lanka’s annual ‘Galle Dialogue’ started in 2010 also provides a common platform for Sri Lanka to engage with various countries in the region including India, to express her maritime vision and concerns in Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka supported and advocated the concept of Indian Ocean–Zone of Peace at the UN in 1971. The internal ethnic turmoil and use of Indian Ocean by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) to wage a war against the Sri Lankan government for nearly thirty years has led to more focus on maritime awareness and cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.
Cooperation in the maritime domain though positive; has some concerns for India regarding Sri Lanka’s external engagement to place itself as a hub in the Indian Ocean, particularly with regard to China, for developing Sri Lankan ports. At the same time, India needs to capitalise on the concept of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), taking into account interests and aspirations of its neighbours like Sri Lanka.
Script: Dr. M. Samatha, Strategic Analyst On Sri Lanka