Domestic politics and China’s influence will play a major role in hampering the growth of CSC
This year, the Fifth National Security Advisor meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) welcomed Mauritius as its fourth member while encouraging Bangladesh and Seychelles to join as member states. This expansion of the CSC indicates how South Asian and the Indian Ocean (IO) countries are increasingly keen to counter Non-Traditional Security (NTS) and maritime threats in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). But despite this enthusiasm and advantages of the CSC in boosting the security of these countries, its institutionalisation continues to be challenged by the region’s domestic politics, especially the China factor, in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Exploring a common ground for securing a stabsle regional structure is imperative to boost cooperation. In a complex region such as South Asia, where cooperating on traditional security is a sensitive subject, NTS has become the common ground for more cooperation.
The significance of the maritime regional structure to India is emphasised by its stance of being a ‘net-security provider’ in the IOR with initiatives such as the Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR).
Limited resources and inadequate material capabilities have compelled small island nations to rely on major powers, especially India, to counter NTS threats such as terrorism, climate change, drug trafficking, sea piracy, and so forth. In this regard, they have welcomed India’s assistance in the economic, defence, and humanitarian fields. For India and its island neighbours, immunity from maritime threats is of great importance for its economic welfare and trade security. The CSC has, thus, become a viable platform for these nations to collectively address these threats.
The significance of the maritime regional structure to India is emphasised by its stance of being a ‘net-security provider’ in the IOR with initiatives such as the Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR). Capacity-building programmes and defence assistance to Sri Lanka and Maldives have further cemented India’s position. The nation’s effort to increase its presence in the IOR is intensified due to external power like China increasing its maritime activities in the region.
Essentially, the CSC has received a lot of attention from its founding countries (India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka). A ‘CSC Focused Operation’ and the first Oceanographers and Hydrographers Conference were also conducted under the umbrella of the CSC. Its recent fifth and sixth security meetings concluded with the exchanges of maritime safety concerns commonly affecting the member states and also expanding to include new member states. But despite this growing priority and institutionalisation, there are potential roadblocks that can restrict its progress.
The CSC will likely be haunted by the domestic politics of the region. The political situation often changes with the shifting ruling party in a country. This is true in the case of Maldives and Sri Lanka. The current political tide of Maldives with President Solih has been favorable to India as opposed to Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Under the domain of the CSC, the Maldives has enhanced maritime security, especially through India’s assistance. Increased Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), sharing maritime security information, launching of the coastal radar system, India’s Dornier aircraft handover, agreements to enhance the Maldivian Coast Guard, and the presence of Indian vessels for hydrographic survey merely indicate this increasing cooperation. However, this might take a U-turn under Yameen’s Presidency, if the election swerves in his favour. Besides aggravating the anti-India sentiment, the ‘India Out’ campaign further politicised India’s effort to assist the Maldives in the maritime sector. These initiatives through India were often portrayed with scepticism along with the growing anti-India sentiment.
Increased Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), sharing maritime security information, launching of the coastal radar system, India’s Dornier aircraft handover, agreements to enhance the Maldivian Coast Guard, and the presence of Indian vessels for hydrographic survey merely indicate this increasing cooperation.
The need for India as a maritime ‘first responder’ in Sri Lanka made Gotabaya Rajapaksa push for the CSC in 2011. Certain aspects of the Conclave—such as maritime security received further push in the form of India’s economic assistance to Sri Lanka worth US$3.8 billion, especially with the onset of its economic crisis. For instance, both India and Sri Lanka have signed an agreement to build a Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC); likewise, a Dornier aircraft was handed over to Sri Lanka recently. However, India’s assistance often raises suspicion among the populace and mainly from the leftist parties. Such suspicion is further propagandised to exploit votes in their favour—impacting the efficiency of the CSC. The Rajapaksas and Buddhist clergy’s close alliance with China is also a major challenge to the organisation. China’s securing of vital geoeconomic projects such as the Eastern Container Terminal could hamper the maritime security of the region.
The second major roadblock to the CSC is the China factor. India’s common means to counter traditional and non-traditional security threats through Dornier aircrafts, MRCCs, etc. will create scepticism from China, and also risk the island countries being tagged as ‘anti-China’. Economically, China remains one of the largest partners in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Beijing is the largest exporter of Sri Lanka, and 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s external debt belongs to the communist nation. On the account of the Maldives, China’s footing in the region intensified during the reign of Abdulla Yameen. The Maldives owes between US$1.1 billion to US$1.4 billion to China, and it is also one of the Maldives’ leading export destinations. China’s assistance and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects are also seen as agents of development and infrastructural connectivity in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Colombo Port City project and Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, and Norochcholai Coal Power Plant in the Maldives are all parts of the BRI project. Further, scepticism of India’s dominance in the region, coupled with the ambition to retain some autonomy in the IOR, motivates these nations to continue to facilitate China’s influence, respect, and align with its interests. Therefore, the small countries will continue to respect Chinese interests, and balance between India and China. This will likely slow down, halt or even reverse certain CSC projects and their achievements.
China’s assistance and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects are also seen as agents of development and infrastructural connectivity in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
As NTS threats continue to capture the interests of these island nations, the CSC is an initiative that attempts to bind the countries together to counter these threats. Therefore, a scale of coordination that is limited to the domain of non-traditional security will drive the CSC into a smooth path for the time being. Moreover, the forum is vulnerable to certain potential barriers that would impede its progress from reaching its full potential. Domestic politics and China’s influence will play a major role in hampering the Conclave’s agenda. President Wickremesinghe’s recent remark on military non-alliance in the IO stresses the relevance of NTS and the significance of the CSC. Similarly, the Maldives positions itself to strictly avoid engaging in the traditional maritime security domain with India. Thus, the element of traditional security will invite objection from China, thus, hindering the growth of the CSC. A broad vision to counter NTS threats and mitigate China’s influence will at best impede the progress of the Conclave.
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