Col. (retd) R.Hariharan
India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives signed a landmark agreement on July 8, 2013 on coordinated handling of maritime security threats such as piracy, gunrunning and terrorism and presumably human trafficking in the Indian Ocean. The three nations also agreed to share capacities and information related to these threats and to pursue sustainable development of maritime environment. The agreement represents the culmination of a process that started with the first Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security meeting that started in 2011 and continued during the last two years.
Although the agreement is a big step forward in improving the national security of all the three Indian Ocean powers, they need to take coordinated action to take advantage of it. However,three factors could stymie such progress such as aberrations of unequal power equations, influence of external powers, and political compulsions due to internal and external issues. The agreement is of special strategic significance to Sri Lanka due to its unique geographical location astride the Indian Ocean. It dominates the sea lanes of Indian Ocean, midway between the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Malacca, and acts as a natural vanguard for India’s peninsular and maritime security.
As Vice Admiral R. K. Dhawan, Vice Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, pointed out in the Galle Dialogue 2012, Indian Ocean has become the ‘economic highway’ of the world today, with 66% of oil shipments so vital for India, Japan and China three major countries of Asia, 33% of bulk cargo and 50% of the world’s container traffic passing through its waters. “We see the role of the Indian Navy as a major stabilizing force in this great movement of energy across the Indian Ocean, as India is cognizant of the need for security in the ‘global commons,” he underlined the vital role played by India in Indian Ocean security. Conscious of the importance of maintaining security of this vital region, it is not surprising that India, Sri Lanka and Maldives are striving to build a win-win relationship.
Sri Lanka regained its freedom of the seas after it eliminated the LTTE
in May 2009. In the Eelam War, Sri Lanka Navy despite its limited capability adopted innovative strategies to neutralise the Sea Tigers – LTTE’s seaborne arm – as a force multiplier of the Tamil Tigers. The noteworthy achievement was the SLN’s destruction of the LTTE tramp shipping fleet that had sustained the fighting capability of the LTTE. This achievement was also a demonstration of value addition through international cooperation.India and the U.S. provided valuable technical and operational inputs to the SLN. SLN’s successful war against the Sea Tigers provides important learning for other countries facing increasingly technology savvy terrorist threat that transcends borders between nations.
But one aspect that is usually neglected in all the three countries is the security of their coastal assets. Is Sri Lanka taking adequate security measures to protect its infrastructure assets in Colombo, Trincomalee and Hambantota where huge investments are being made? If I go by Indian experience, I am not confident about it. Port security is one of the most complex things to control and coordinate.
Colombo is handling annually 30.9 milion tons of cargo. This makes it one of the top 35 busiest ports of the world. The port’s capacities are dramatically increasing with the $1.2 billion expansion project undertaken in 2008 finishing. It would add four new terminals with three berths each. And its container handling capacity is poised to go up from 4.1 million containers (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit- TEU) to about 12 million TEUs. Colombo is also likely to become one of the few ports in South Asia to receive mega container carriers of 18,000 TEU.
Trincomalee harbour is the second best natural harbour in the world. An ambitious project to develop Trincomalee port and industrial complex is underway. In June 2012, Sri Lanka signed $4 billion foreign direct investment (FDI) deal with an Indian company – Gateway Industries for Trincomalee development project involving development of a deep water jetty, a bulk commodities terminal, a power plant, and a host of other heavy industries and complementary industries. The project is expected to create more than 5,000 jobs and over 20,000 opportunities for indirect employment.
Hambantota port – officially known as the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port – is a newest addition to Sri Lanka’s maritime capability. The port is being developed as a multi-purpose, industrial and service port under the socio-economic development process of Sri Lanka. Its location on the Southern tip of Sri Lanka within 19 km of east-west shipping route adds strategic value to the port. The port was opened in November 2010 when first phase of development was completed at a cost of $361 million. The second phase is underway with investments of $1.8 million. It will provide bunkering, ship repair, ship building and crew change facilities on completion.
These are huge infrastructure investments for a small country like Sri Lanka. And progressively international shipping traffic will increase the inflow of not only ships but men and material increasing the potential security hazards from overseas. Sri Lanka needs to ensure a secure environment for the users for unfettered development of trade and commerce.
India learnt a hard lesson when it neglected maritime security aspects of Mumbai coast when Jihadi terrorists from Pakistan infiltrated Mumbai to launch a series of attacks on November 26, 2008. In the three-day attack 166 people were killed and over 300 people wounded. After this bitter experience India has taken a series of measures to upgrade coastal and maritime security assets. Sri Lanka may find it useful to learn Indian experience of this difficult exercise.
As India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon said the trilateral agreement lays out the initial steps for creating a joint platform to share capacities and information. It is up to the three countries to take it forward and increase its benefits as it would also help fishermen in earning their livelihood, besides equipping the countries on dealing with emergencies, such as cyclones or a tsunami.