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Trilateral meet held after 6 years, looks beyond maritime security

NSA Ajit Doval being welcomed by Army Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva on his arrival for trilateral India-Sri Lanka-Maldives consultations on maritime and security cooperation, in Colombo. (PTI Photo)

AFTER THE Quad grouping, India on Saturday revived the Indian Ocean troika with Sri Lanka and Maldives to promote “meaningful cooperation” in the Indian Ocean region on “maritime security”, as Beijing’s aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific has caught global attention. Mauritius and Seychelles joined as observers through virtual mode.

In a shift from the past, the National Security Advisors of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives decided — after their in-person trilateral meeting in Colombo — to broad-base the maritime security dialogue and include “terrorism”, “radicalisation”, “extremism”, “drugs”, “arms and human trafficking”, “money laundering” and “cybersecurity” as they decided to cooperate in these areas of common concern.

This is the first time that NSA Ajit Doval participated in the trilateral dialogue as the group has not met since March 2014.

This mechanism has been revived after six years – past meetings were held in Maldives (October 2011), Sri Lanka (July 2013) and India (March 2014).

Sources told The Indian Express that it was Doval’s initiative to include “common security threats” of terrorism and extremism among other areas, and Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Maj Gen (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne and Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Didi readily agreed.

Past joint statements after the trilateral meeting were limited in their scope, as they did not mention terrorism – they discussed maritime security, maritime domain awareness and illegal maritime activities.

“The Sri Lankan establishment has put terrorism high on agenda, following the Easter bombings last year. So, there was a common understanding on the issue of expanding the scope of the dialogue,” a source told The Indian Express.

The deputy NSAs have been tasked to carry forward the agenda discussed at the meeting, and they will meet twice a year.

A joint statement issued after the meeting on Saturday said 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”.

It said that “recognising the significance of the forum for promoting meaningful cooperation in the Indian Ocean region on common issues pertaining to maritime security, the three countries took stock of the current maritime security environment in the region, and discussed mutual cooperation in the areas of maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, joint exercises, capacity building, maritime security and threats, marine pollution and maritime underwater heritage.”

This is important since India has been concerned over the increased aggressive behaviour by China in the Indo-Pacific region, especially this year, in the middle of the pandemic. New Delhi wants all the neighbouring maritime neighbours to be on the same page on the issue of Beijing’s assertive and proactive actions in the Indian Ocean region, sources said.

“They agreed to further strengthen cooperation in dealing with these challenges to ensure peace and security in the region for common benefit. 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, radicalisation, extremism, drugs, arms, human trafficking, money laundering, cybersecurity and effect of climate change on maritime environment,” the statement said.

Senior officials from Seychelles and Mauritius joined the trilateral meeting through video-conferencing, as they were invited as “observers”. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is in Seychelles to meet the new political leadership, as India develops a strategically-important project on the Assumption island.

The joint statement said the heads of delegations “agreed to meet regularly to share, discuss and ensure timely implementation of the decisions taken in the meeting”.

“They also decided to hold deputy NSA level working group meetings, biannually for cooperation at operational level,” it said.

Doval, who arrived in Colombo on Friday, met Maldives Defence Minister Didi and discussed deepening the bilateral partnership. On Saturday, he called on Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and had a “productive” discussion with him.

Eye on China

Sensing Beijing’s aggression in the region and beyond, New Delhi sent NSA Ajit Doval to Colombo to build a strategic coalition with maritime neighbours in the Indian Ocean region. The group will be tested in the coming months as Beijing makes its moves.

Source: The Indian Express

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