elivering the keynote address at yet another Indian Ocean conference, titled ‘The Indian Ocean – Defining our Future’ at Temple Trees last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe asked a very pertinent question: Is it relevant to talk about ‘freedom of navigation’ in the Indian Ocean where relative calm prevails, and freedom of navigation has largely been respected? Given the importance of the Indian Ocean, he said, the question should be whether we can leave its security and stability to chance. “Shouldn’t we take advantage of the benign strategic atmosphere that exists to create a maritime order in the Indian Ocean that can withstand challenges that may emerge in the future?”
A pivotal geographic location has made it incumbent on Sri Lanka to assert itself in dialogues relating to the Indian Ocean (IO). In these discussions Sri Lanka seems to be taking a lead role in the area of ‘safety and security.’ But even as the Indian Ocean-related conferences become more frequent, and regional formations like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) come to the fore, it becomes evident that for smaller states, achieving the goal of economic integration and advancement alongside peace and security in the IO, is easier said than done.
One reason is that while the goals of the smaller states mainly relate to the trade, investment, technology etc., this is not the case with big powers. For them there is inevitably a contest to gain strategic advantage for themselves, and to rally regional support in that exercise. Adding to the familiar tensions between ‘big-brother’ India and its neighbours, the IO has now become the locus of intense contest for influence between extra-regional powers, China and the US. In this situation smaller states will need to guard against being used unwittingly as a cat’s paw by any big power against its rivals. Some of the most forthright questions relating to security in the IO came from students of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) last Wednesday during the Q&A following a talk on ‘Shared Vision for the Indian Ocean through IORA’ by Prof. Anil Sooklal, Deputy Director General, Department of International Relations and Cooperation, South Africa, at the BCIS, Colombo. Students, unlike politicians, don’t have agendas. One question was, given the fact that IORA’s dialogue partners belong to different camps, “Are we not subjecting the organization to the same power rivalry?” (IORA’s dialogue partners are Japan, Germany, China, UK, USA, France and Egypt.) Other questions related to IORA’s response to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project under China’s Belt and Road initiative (causing tensions with India), how will IORA be affected by the maritime expansion of China and Japan, and why is Pakistan excluded from IORA (“will India take a leadership role?”)There were no ready answers to these questions. “Hostility has been there throughout history, we need to rally to the challenge” Prof. Sooklal said. With regard to the possibility of power camps emerging his response suggested that IORA’s policy of working through consensus had enabled the organisation to withstand pressures better than others. Pakistan’s application for membership ‘was opposed,’ so it was turned down he said. Sooklal who was a panelist at the conference at Temple Trees the next day, worried about the increasing militarization of the Indian Ocean space, saying “we have been slow to shape the narrative.” In the maritime sphere, Sri Lanka has a lot on its plate. Last month member states of IORA met in Colombo to finalize the Terms of Reference for a Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security, that Sri Lanka is to coordinate. Meanwhile BIMSTEC’s sector on Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime, led by India, has assigned Sri Lanka as ‘lead shepherd’ of it sub-group on ‘Intelligence Sharing.’ This raises some interesting questions, if not dilemmas.
Some vital issues in relation to Sri Lanka’s role in BIMSTEC were raised by a researcher at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) at a round table on Sept. 20. Natasha Fernando started her presentation by asking “Does it make sense” to speak of “security cooperation in BIMSTEC?” Differentiating ‘Intelligence’ from ‘Information,’ she said “Intelligence sharing … should be for the organization, not for extra-regional powers.” She said that currently, intelligence equipment and technology are provided by Israel. She noted that the term used in the ‘BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in combatting International Terrorism and Transnational Crime and Drug Trafficking’ is “Information sharing,” and not “Intelligence sharing.” Earlier, spelling out her concerns in a INSSSL paper on ‘Security Cooperation through BIMSTEC’ she wrote:
“By virtue of this strategic position, Sri Lanka has immense potential to become a strong base for intelligence coordination provided advanced technology, equipment and resources are in place. Currently India and USA are looking into a Joint Agreement on obtaining advanced military equipment for sharing of encrypted military intelligence. In light of such bilateral security arrangements, there is a question regarding the role that BIMSTEC play in intelligence sharing and how symbiotic the arrangement is for the member states. There could also arise some skepticism on whether intelligence sharing (under a covert arrangement) could occur with an extra-regional power.”Fernando was presumably referring to COMCASA – the major defence agreement signed by the US and India last month that would give India access to sophisticated communications security equipment to facilitate interoperability between their forces. India attaches high priority to surveillance of the Indian Ocean, and according to reports plans to use drones for the purpose. It’s worth noting that a senior Sri Lankan minister is on record having told PTI in Beijing last year that the Indian Navy is assisting Sri Lanka Navy to track submarines. India’s major security concerns revolve around China’s maritime expansion extending into the Indian Ocean, and Pakistan’s alleged sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. India, China and Pakistan are all considered friends of Sri Lanka. As a state that has no beef with any of these parties, Sri Lanka needs to consider whether there is a risk that intelligence shared with India could potentially end up with the US, and/or be used against China or Pakistan – both of whom are outside BIMSTEC. Since ‘controlling the narrative’ inevitably becomes a part of the game for big players like US and India, Sri Lanka would also need to be mindful that the IO-related discussions it hosts are structured so as to be genuinely inclusive, if peace is the objective. There appears to be a tangled web of security concerns and arrangements among the powers engaged in the IO region. Those arrangements and their motivations are not always clear. Against such a backdrop, Sri Lanka would need to be cautious about taking on undefined roles in ‘maritime safety and security’ and ‘intelligence sharing.’