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South Asia’s maritime defense strategy: A key to stability between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives

By Srimal Fernando and Megha Gupta

India emerging as a regional power launched the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya commissioned in 2013, which was a big leap forward for India’s defense policy. The enlargement of the Indian maritime defense forces and the improvement of battleships, destroyers, submarines and aircraft carriers in the last 30 years, has resulted in a stronger position for India to ensure a greater stability in the region. With this progress, India has expanded its maritime orbit of security in the Indian Ocean in particularly with its southern neighbors such as Sri Lanka and Maldives. Despite this progress made by India, the defense and the foreign policy of these island states with the big nations like India and China is not very clear. For instance, Sri Lanka leasing out the strategic ports to both China and India, as well as Maldives changing its stance towards China has shown a great length of uncertainty in the foreign and the defense policy of these small island nations. On the other hand, India’s foreign and defense policy with its southern neighbors is intact and it needs to get its southern neighbors on its side to create an environment of collective security and for enhancing the connectivity of the exclusive economic zone between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to approximately 3.7 million sq.km. Thereby, safeguarding the territorial integrity of these small island states should be the prime importance of India.

In the recent years, India has softened its security policy with these island nations, Sri Lanka and Maldives, in comparison to the late 80’s when India had intervened in Sri Lanka by sending the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) and also India’s support to Maldives through the ‘Operation Cactus’ to bring down the coup launched by the foreign mercenaries. Since then the key cooperating security principle of India has become the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, Maldives and the other South Asian countries. In the contemporary days these two island nations are key for India’s neighborhood first policy and its security policy as they have a common interest with India in promoting peace and stability in the South Asian region.

To curtail China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, India has to strengthen its air, naval, land and nuclear defense capabilities. In spite of India’s setback in 1962 with China, India has continued to expand the nuclear program throughout the 1990’s. Currently India spends $43.2 billion a year for the defense budget, out of which 15 percent is allocated to the navy and 23 percent to the air force (Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, 2018). Despite this increased defense budget allocation and the commissioning of the aircraft carrier, one of the least developed sector in the Indian maritime defense sector is the purchase of the nuclear armed submarines. Whereas, India’s neighbours like Pakistan and China together have a significant edge on number of submarines and nuclear warheads as compared to India.China also now has the second highest defense expenditure in the world. Hence, India’s defense policy should focus on developing nuclear capable submarines, offshore patrol vessels, frigates, battleships and fast attack crafts to reinstate its power in the Indian Ocean. India should also have an advanced maritime surveillance system around its 7,500 km coastline also covering the Andaman Nicobar and the Lakshadweep islands.

Small powers like Sri Lanka and Maldives should rather act than react to certain situations. Definitely these small island states should exert influence on large states like India and China by appealing on their mutual interests. The ending of the long drawn civil war in Sri Lanka nine years ago had brought about a change in the national security and the maritime capacities of the island nation. Perhaps the most significant naval legacy of Sri Lanka was the manner in which it had paved the way for the creation of fast attack crafts, special arrow boat squadron, amphibious vessels, high frequency surface wave radar system, and the commissioning of several Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV). The Sri Lankan government had also ordered two advanced OPV’s worth $150 million from India. Therefore, for a small island state like Sri Lanka to allocate seven percent of its annual budget estimated to be around $2 billion is much higher than the big nations like China and India. Since Sri Lanka is having a huge national security budget, big nations like India and China can directly benefit by selling the defense capacities to Sri Lanka. Hence, these initiatives can lead towards developing interdependency policies between the big and the small nations.

Maldives situated 500kms off the coast from both India and Sri Lanka, has strategic chokepoints at either end of the Indian Ocean where every day more than 40 million barrels of oil passes daily. This includes the Straits of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait. During the ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988, the maritime defense capacities of Maldives was very low, however over the years Maldives has upgraded its defense force coast guard services to defend its sovereignty as a small island state. Being close to the equator Maldives has a vast Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) that needs surveillance and security to vital shipping lanes. Since 2009 Maldives has undergone a rapid modernization process as it has incorporated the Marine Corps, Special Forces and Airborne Unit into the current structure of the Maldivian Defense Forces. The present Maldivian Coast Guard Services has several fast attack crafts, landing crafts and an off-shore patrol vessel named Huravee, to provide maritime defense services to 20 atolls spread across 960km from the north to the south in addition to the EEZ. Even though Maldives is a small island nation it is a vital buffer zone that divides the Indian Ocean from the east to the west, present within the close periphery of the Indian strategic orbit.

Other than the Indian and the Chinese strategic influence, U.S. also has a direct defense impact on these small island states and within the Indian Ocean through the presence of their naval base in Diego Garcia. This 35 sq.km base has the presence of around 30,000 U.S. defense personnel for the purpose of providing protection to the Indo-Pacific region and to balance the Chinese influence in this region.

Similarly, India being a regional superpower and slowly moving towards being a global power requires its foreign and defense policy to be transformed to a higher level pertaining to a responsible behavior towards its neighbours to bring about political, economic and military stability in this region. This transformation requires a collective approach not only from the big nations but also from small island states like Sri Lanka and Maldives. Hence, the focus on the maritime defense policy will be a key to safeguard the territorial integrity of these three nations.

Srimal Fernando a research scholar at Jindal School of International Affairs, India and an editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa and Megha Gupta, a scholar of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India.

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