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President Gotabaya’s India visit: Q & A on regional security issues

Indian Navy surveillance capability has been upgraded with acquisition of US state of the art aircraft. It is keeping an eye on Chinese warship movement from Indonesian coast to Djibouti on a real time basis. 

by Col R Hariharan

At the invitation of Prime Minister Narender Modi, the newly elected Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made his first official visit to New Delhi on November 29-30. Security issues including counter terrorism cooperation topped the agenda of their meeting. On this occasion, my answers to questions raised by a Sri Lanka scribe on India-Sri Lanka relations in the regional perspective are given below.



Q-1: What is this focus on the security of the country and the region mainly about?

The answer is in two parts:

a. At the strategic level, China's increasing military and economic clout in the Indo-Pacific is worrying the US and its allies notably Japan, Australia and S Korea, as well as India and ASEAN, which are bordering China. So, inevitably Sri Lanka astride Indian Ocean is becoming the focus of this power play.

President Gotabaya, with his focus on national security, is seeking a positive equation with India to improve his ability to better manage China, which is well established in Sri Lanka. This will suit the US which is probably applying its own pressure on Sri Lanka as Indo-US security cooperation is growing fast.

b. Gotabaya has vowed to tighten security against Islamist terrorism. India has well established intelligence set up to handle it. Indian capability was seen when it warned in advance about Easter Sunday attack. So Gotabaya is probably banking upon enhancing Indian help to network with India on real time basis on intelligence sharing in addition to building closer security relations with India.

Q 2: PM Modi is offering Sri Lanka 50 mn US Dollars for improving its intelligence capability. How will this fund be used?

Probably USD 50 mn would be spent upon technology upgrades to improve surveillance on land and sea. China has already agreed to supply facial recognition technology Sri Lanka. So efforts will be made to build a national grid in Sri Lanka where intelligence and operational inputs will be coordinated one on one.

Q-3: There were security lapses that resulted in the Easter bomb blasts. However, even in the aftermath of the gory incident, stricter security measures were not seen. How can we maintain tough security measures, without affecting tourism and discouraging much-needed foreign investors?

This subject was President Gotabaya's bread and butter that enabled him to defeat the LTTE. When public confidence increases in national security, logically tourism and foreign investments should pick up. So Gotabaya should pay attention to ensure tourists are not harassed by coercive police action like arrest of tourists for unwitting breaches of minor security rules. Police culture needs to change needs to change to promote tourism.

Q-4: Security of the region is also a foremost vital for India. What sort of a measures India has in terms protecting the region? what are the concerns for India?

Under PM Modi India's global, regional and bilateral security priorities are geared to enable India to assume its rightful place in keeping with the its size, economic and human resources strength. This is somewhat like Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream but promoted not aggressively like China. So India's security priorities are internal security for stable economic growth, stable neighborhood including Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and SE Asia. In my view, India's actions are based on this narrative; it is still being fleshed out by the Modi government.

India's security priorities for the region will to build, reinforce and strengthen multifaceted relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. At the same time India's actions will also be aimed at containing Pakistan and China's influence either singly or together. So India can be expected to build naval, counter terrorism and cyber security co-operation and coordination with the three neighbours.

Q-5: Is LTTE still seen as a threat for India and Sri Lanka?

No way. LTTE is still banned in India, on par with Islamist terrorism. Sri Lanka should not be misled by noise of pro-LTTE personalities like Seeman and Thirumurughan Gandhi. Their limited influence is within manageable limits of the major parties.

Q-6: In an interview for South China Morning Post PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, right after his 2015 defeat, responded, to the question "whether the docking of two Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka in 2014 that raised India's hackles," Rajapaksa said: Whenever Chinese Submarines come to this part of the world, they always inform India. The Chinese president was here so the subs were" he said. Then he said, "Find out how many Indian submarines and warships came to our waters when the Indian PM came for the SAARC summit in 2008." So there were Indian Subs also coming in here. So is this an unusual scenario where subs coming in here or anywhere in the region? How do you strike mutual cooperation in terms of feeling safe in the region and having a safe country?

Indian Navy surveillance capability has been upgraded with acquisition of US state of the art aircraft. It is keeping an eye on Chinese warship movement from Indonesian coast to Djibouti on a real time basis. Normally, when a foreign submarine moves into port friendly neighbours are informed. This is what Sri Lanka had been doing. Sri Lanka and Indian navies have age-old relations; so really I see no conflict of interest between India and Sri Lanka as long their communication links are maintained.

Q -7: China is an issue for India. Its development activities and military drills in the Indian Ocean are continuing. What is expected from China in terms of keeping the Indian Ocean safe?

I don't see China as "an issue" for India. The two giant neighbours share a land border, with a baggage of historical issues thereof. They are also wary of each other’s growing political, economic and military strength, particularly after China launched its Belt and Road strategic infrastructure initiative in 2013. Both PM Modi and President Xi Jinping are aware of their conflict of interests have the potential to lead to military confrontation. So they are trying to keep their communication lines open to manage likely areas of confrontation.

China's assertion of naval strength in IOR is growing in tandem with the growth of Chinese Martine assets including infrastructure. India has signed naval cooperation agreement with France for mutual benefit in IOR. In addition India is a member of the Quadrilateral - strategic group of US, Japan, Australia besides India - to ensure free flow of maritime traffic in Indo-Pacific after China became strident in asserting its claim over South China Sea.

China is aware of these strategic developments. However, China will probably avoid any military escalation in IOR as it can delay achievement of Xi's Chinese Dream of creating a moderately prosperous society for every citizen. It will also affect its desire to create a new world order. However, whenever China's core concerns are threatened, eruption of controlled confrontation cannot be ruled out. This applies to IOR as well.

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