Securing seas

The maritime security agreement that India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have entered into is a landmark tripartite effort that has the potential of expanding beyond South Asia.

Aimed at making sea lanes in the waters off their coasts safe from the threat of pirates and terrorists, the agreement envisages joint exercise and patrolling, information sharing, collaborative measures to improve maritime domain awareness, co-ordination in search and rescue operations and so on. The three countries will also work together in surveillance of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Such surveillance is aimed not just only at securing their EEZs but also, it could involve joint exploration for resources.

The maritime security agreement comes at a crucial time. The threat of piracy has assumed worrying proportions in the Indian Ocean. While the problem caught global attention in the waters off Somalia, anti-piracy operations off the African coast had a ‘ballooning effect,’ pushing pirates to operate in waters further away, even near the Lakshadweep Islands, for instance.  In March 2010, pirates sought to hijack a Maltese ship 200 nautical miles from these islands.  Since piracy is a problem that no country can address on its own given the vastness of the oceans, India rightly took a co-operative approach.  It resulted in an agreement to join hands with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Securing the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean is crucial for all three countries. The growth of India’s economy hinges on oil imports from Africa and West Asia, which traverse waters that are pirate infested.  Being island territories, Sri Lanka and the Maldives will benefit in an array of areas such as trade and security of their land mass as well.

In recent years, China has made vast inroads into the economies of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. This has understandably raised concern in Delhi. Analysts have drawn attention to the possible encirclement of India by China. The maritime security agreement is a reminder that while India’s neighbours may reach out to China for investment and benefit from it, their security is closely linked to that of India. And thus they cannot ignore India in their quest to enhance their own security and need to co-operate with India on defence and security matters. Indeed, the security of the Indian Ocean’s sea lanes is a task that will need more littoral countries on board. It is with this in mind that India is considering reaching out to friendly East African countries to bring them on board this agreement.

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