India-China border tensions have pushed New Delhi to proactively expand its defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and South Asian region. As the big league countries like the US, Australia and Japan have come together to boost maritime security in the Indo Pacific through Malabar Naval drills, another trilateral bloc is gaining a foothold in the Indian Ocean.
In a two-day visit to Colombo, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval participated in a high-level trilateral maritime dialogue with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The meeting that was last held in 2014 in New Delhi, has been revived after six years.
“NSA Ajit Doval met Major Gen(Retd.)Kamal Gunaratne, Defence Secretary of #SriLanka & discussed matters pertaining to the growing defense and security partnership between the two countries. The two dignitaries agreed on several steps to further strengthen the valuable cooperation between two countries which also contributes to peace and security in the region,” the High Commission of India in Colombo tweeted.
NSA Ajit Doval called on PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. NSA conveyed greetings from PM @narendramodi and recalled the contribution of the successful Virtual Bilateral Summit between the two leaders to progress in bilateral cooperation. @PresRajapaksa @MEAIndia #lka pic.twitter.com/Y8qv4lsJwn
— India in Sri Lanka (@IndiainSL) November 27, 2020
The Indian High Commission added that apart from the trilateral discussion, Doval also met Maldivian Minister Of Defense Mariya Didi to discuss deepening bilateral partnership between India and the Maldives.
The trilateral meet focused on promoting meaningful cooperation in the Indian Ocean on common issues pertaining to maritime security. The three countries discussed mutual cooperation in areas related to maritime domain awareness, capacity building, maritime security and threats, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and joint exercises.
The joint statement by the bloc said that India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives exchanged views on “common security threats” and would improve intelligence sharing to counter those threats.
Maldivian Minister of Defence @MariyaDidi met with PM @PresRajapaksa yesterday. As the The 4th National Security Adviser (NSA)Level Trilateral Meeting on Maritime Security Cooperation commenced;they had a detailed discussion on deepening bilateral partnership between both nations pic.twitter.com/DdbT5eOE7C
— PMO SriLanka (@SrilankaPMO) November 28, 2020
India’s efforts have picked up pace in recent times as China’s influence in the region has grown and now both the nuclear-armed nations are locked in an intense border standoff since June when a violent clash broke out killing 20 Indian troops and an unconfirmed number of Chinese casualties.
In a display of strength, the Quad countries – India, Australia, Japan and the US concluded Malabar drills 2020 in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. The exercise is conducted in the backdrop of rising tensions with China. All the four Quad countries are facing hostilities from China and have hastened the cooperation after officials from the member countries met in Tokyo on October 6.
While the three partner nations haven’t directly addressed China in any of the meets, the US has not held back from labeling it as an “aggressor in the “South [China Sea], in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits.”
China’s influence in the region has grown manifold through Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Experts have warned Sri Lanka that it may fall for China’s ‘Debt trap’ diplomacy as Sri Lanka had relied heavily on China to construct a $1.5 billion port in Hambantota in the country’s south which has already been leased back to China for 99 years as it didn’t create enough revenue to pay back the loan.
Beijing has been criticized internationally for loaning billions of dollars to developing nations who then fail to repay the loan. Beijing then demands concessions and advantages in exchange for debt relief.
However, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has rejected the assertion saying that Sri Lanka owes China for its development assistance. Similarly, Maldives has also been worried about its Chinese debt that has been estimated at $3.1 billion.
China’s displeasure about the recent trilateral meet could be seen through its state media that called the meeting an attempt by India and the US to sway “small nations” by exerting “geopolitical pressure.”
These countries “cannot afford to pay the price if they offend either the US or India,” said Global Times, a tabloid under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party. “They try their best to strike a balance between great powers.”
The tabloid added that India has been busy with resetting, restoring and strengthening ties with its neighboring countries including Nepal and Bangladesh.
“Against the backdrop of ongoing border tensions with China, India hopes to expand its influence, in a bid to gain more strategic capital and room to maneuver with China,” Global Times quoted Qian Feng, director of the research department of the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University.