As the Pacific Ocean’s strategic rivalries intensify, a new multilateral grouping has emerged in the Indian Ocean, and its ripples are likely to be felt in the South China Sea. The Colombo Security Conclave – including India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – last week hosted its second meeting in eight months, during which the neighbours emphasised “four pillars” of cooperation, including marine security, terrorism, human trafficking and cybersecurity.
The August 4 virtual gathering was held a month after the navies of the three countries conducted their first table top exercise over two days, which New Delhi said was symbolic of “the deep trilateral engagement” in the maritime domain between the nations. The group was formed in 2011 and revived in November last year after a six-year hiatus. It is now poised to expand its full-time membership to Bangladesh, Seychelles and Mauritius, which currently hold observer status.
Experts said the decision to welcome the three new members reflected India’s growing ambitions in the region and its wariness of China’s attempts to cultivate similar partnerships. In 2015, then Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said the trilateral was “exploring the possibility” of bringing countries such as Seychelles and Mauritius into its fold. But the plan stalled when ties between New Delhi and Malé soured during the term of former Maldives president Abdulla Yameen.
But six years later, as it fends off an assertive Chinese presence in the Himalayas, New Delhi is now dusting off the old plans. “It is very clear, India’s rationale behind pushing the expansion is China,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, the director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “If China wasn’t active in the Indian Ocean and wasn’t sending warships inside India’s exclusive economic zone, India would not have been so proactive on [the grouping].”
China has been expanding its presence in the region, establishing a military base in Djibouti, operating the Gwadar Port in Pakistan and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. In May, Kenya inaugurated a Chinese-built port on its Indian Ocean island of Lamu, while the Tanzanian government indicated it planned to revive a US$10 billion deal with China to build a new port in the coastal town of Bagamoyo. Chinese military observers have speculated the People’s Liberation Army Navy could eventually raise a special naval fleet for the Indian Ocean.
China’s maritime activities in the region have caused anxiety in New Delhi. In December 2019, a Chinese research vessel was identified within Indian waters and expelled. In September last year, soon after the Galwan Valley clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers, the Indian Navy said it had tracked a Chinese vessel in the Indian Ocean region collecting sensitive information. In February, India organised a summit for the region’s defence ministers, where New Delhi indicated it was ready to supply weapons systems to its neighbours. Without naming China, India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh referred to disputes in the South China Sea when he said “the negative impact of conflicting claims in some maritime areas of the world highlighted the need to ensure peace” in the region.
According to Rajagopalan from the Observer Research Foundation, an expanded Colombo Security Conclave will keep partners engaged and ensure they do not “fall completely into the Chinese sphere of influence”. “These are all major Indian Ocean nations. Countries like Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles, especially, are critical to the strategic and security calculations of the Indian Ocean,” Rajagopalan added.
A former senior officer in the Indian Navy, who declined to be named due to his current affiliation with the Indian government, said India has always positioned itself as “the first responder in any crises in the region and a security provider for the region”. “Such a multilateral grouping will help operationalise this role and ensure there is little space for anyone else.”
India has been seeking bilateral cooperation with Indian Ocean countries, donating fast-patrol vessels to Seychelles and upgrading its defence ties with Maldives. The official said subregional groupings, rather than depending on bilateral partnerships alone, helped reinforce India’s role.
Such a strategy might also prove to be an effective one, if history is to go by. Nilanthi Samaranayake, director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis Programme at CNA, a Washington-based research organisation, said the expansion of the trilateral would demonstrate its progress, pointing to maritime exercises as well as heightened civilian and military engagements between the three nations.
“The maritime security trilateral between India, Sri Lanka, and Maldives in the 2011-2015 period was actually a rare South Asian multilateral that produced a significant amount of activity in a short period of time,” Samaranayake said.
But experts warn that six years later, New Delhi might need to temper its expectations from the grouping.
Lailufar Yasmin, a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka said Bangladesh might be wary of the grouping becoming a geopolitical strategy to “contain or counter China”.
“Bangladesh has clarified that it will not join any security pact or alliance which is targeted against any country,” she said, adding that Dhaka’s move to join the grouping had been driven by common concerns such as maritime piracy, transnational organised crimes, and climate change effects such as rising sea levels.
“[These] are areas where Bangladesh needs partners to work with to respond to these challenges,” Yasmin said. “Non-traditional security threats cannot be dealt with by the efforts of one country, but need cooperative mechanisms at a regional basis.”
Rajagopalan, the New Delhi-based analyst, agreed that questions over the effectiveness of the grouping remain. But, India, she said, might have to be content with small wins to begin with, such as joint maritime exercises.
“But more importantly, with this engagement, New Delhi will be able to prevent the waters and ports of these countries from being used by the Chinese navy, unlike in the past when Chinese warships docked in a Sri Lankan port,” she said.