Sri Lanka: Importance of Maritime Pact with India – An Indian View

The agreement appears to be part of India's SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) initiative in the Indian Ocean, which has also seen India, Sri Lanka and Maldives give a new push to their 2011 Colombo Security Conclave that now includes Mauritius.

by Nirupama Subramanian 

India and Sri Lanka have signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the Indian public sector Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) to set up a state of the art Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Colombo. The MoU was signed on March 28 during the visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Colombo.

The agreement is significant as it enhances co-operation on maritime security between the two countries in a part of the Indian Ocean region where the India-China rivalry has taken centre stage over the last decade. Earlier this month, India also provided a naval floating dock to the Sri Lankan Navy, and two Dornier aircraft to the Sri Lankan Air Force.

Since March 23, an Indian Navy team has been training the Sri Lankan Air Force and Navy in helicopter operations. During the course of the training, the Sri Lankan pilots are being familiarised with India’s Advanced Light Helicopter.

Further, the two navies conducted a joint exercise in the seas off Colombo. Indian Navy Ship Sharda was part of the exercise, along with Sri Lankan OPV Sayurala.

According to senior officials, the engagement between the forces of the two countries will augment interoperability and seamless maritime actions like carrying out anti-smuggling operations in the Indian Ocean Region.

Enhancing Sri Lanka capacity

MRCCs are part of an international network under the UN’s International Maritime Organisation to monitor the sea lanes with the objective of swift response to emergencies, such as vessels in distress, rescue and evacuation of people, and prevention of and containing environmental disasters such as oil spills.

Each country is responsible for its own Search and Rescue Region. The work of MRCCs is co-ordinated by the Navy or Coast Guard in each country. In India, the Coast Guard is the co-ordinating agency. In Sri Lanka, it is the Navy.

The Bengaluru-based BEL has proposed enhancing Sri Lanka’s small MRCC by setting up advanced software systems that will increase Sri Lanka’s capacities for communication and co-ordination in its SRR in the Indian Ocean, where it is the first responder. The MRCC will be established with a grant of $6 million from India.

The enhanced MRCC will work out of the Sri Lankan Navy headquarters at Colombo, with a sub-centre at Hambantota, where a Chinese state-owned company runs a deep water port that it helped to bill, and which was controversially leased to it by Sri Lanka in 2016.

Seven other sub-units along Sri Lanka’s coastline will make up the proposed new network. In situations in which regional assistance has to be mobilised, as happened with the two recent ship fires in Sri Lankan waters, this MRCC will be able to share information with its Indian counterparts.

SAGAR push

Sri Lanka’s SRR is a wide swathe of 1,778,062. 24 sq kms of the Indian Ocean, and nearly 200 ships pass through these waters everyday.

The agreement appears to be part of India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) initiative in the Indian Ocean, which has also seen India, Sri Lanka and Maldives give a new push to their 2011 Colombo Security Conclave that now includes Mauritius.

The recent meeting of the CSC National Security Advisers identified “five pillars” of co-operation: maritime safety and security; countering terrorism and radicalisation; combating trafficking and transnational organised crime; cyber security, protection of critical infrastructure and technology; and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Sri Lanka clarification

The MRCC has been controversial in Sri Lanka. Parts of the agreement were leaked to the Sri Lankan press last week after it received cabinet approval.

On Tuesday, the day after it was signed, Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry issued a clarification on the MRCC, as well as on recent agreements with India for a naval floating dock and Dornier aircraft. The clarification has provided more details about the agreements than have been in the public domain so far.

Excerpts from the clarification:

The recently signed maritime security pacts with the Government of India will neither result in hindrance nor threat to the national security of Sri Lanka, as misinterpreted by several print and electronic media.

The receipt of Floating Dock Facility from the Government of India at no cost has been projected to reduce the annual outlay of Rs 600 million for outsourced docking repairs and this proposal has been in the pipeline since year 2015.

The Dornier Reconnaissance Aircraft is basically deployed for maritime surveillance, search and rescue operations and to deliver information to various required platforms. The unavailability of this capability was the motive for bilateral dialogues between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka during the last couple of years and it was agreed upon to provide one Dornier Reconnaissance Aircraft to Sri Lanka free of charge.

Accordingly, during the period earmarked for manufacturing process of the said aircraft, the Government of India will lend a similar aircraft which will be piloted by Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) pilots. An Indian training team will also arrive and stay in the island until the SLAF gains required expertise. Thus, SLAF aircrew will receive an added qualification enabling the country to further strengthen its maritime security while cutting a large cost as a result of the pacts.

Further, with regard to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Colombo (MRCC), the Cabinet of Ministers has granted approval for the proposal to establish MRCC with a US $6 million grant from the Government of India. The establishment of MRCC is highly essential to instantly respond to the search and rescue services of vessels in distress operating in the region and ensure safety of vessels in compliance to various international conventions. Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) is the authority responsible for conducting Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) operations for commercial ships around the island’s SAR region.

Prior to the signing of the aforementioned three pacts, the Ministry of Defence has followed the standard criteria and procedures while channelling it through the other mandatory state establishments including the Attorney General’s Department.

Therefore, except economic and security gains embedded with infrastructure and personnel development, the Defence Ministry assures there won’t be any kind of risk to the national security of Sri Lanka it is being a sovereign nation.”

On Tuesday morning, amid the furore over the MRCC, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested four Indian fishermen from Rameshwaram fishing near Sri Lanka northern island of Nedunthivu and impunded their mechanised boat.

( Nirupama Subramanian works for Indian Express where this piece first appeared)