The 15th edition of biennial trilateral coast guard exercise took place from 20th to 24th November. It did not receive much media attention as it involved, unlike the joint drills by the QUAD members, two smaller neighbours of India. This is an oversight as any country in international politics is sovereign and has similar status as the other.
The exercise is nicknamed ‘Dosti’ which literally means friendship, and in the intergovernmental relationship it can be called close partnership. This is a welcome development as any opportunity to deepen bilateralism in South Asia is propitious for peace and security, especially when Beijing is fomenting disunity and discord in the region., The High Commission of India in Maldives endorsed this viewpoint in a statement.
“The aim of India-Maldives-Sri Lanka tri-lateral exercise ‘Dosti’ is to further fortify the friendship, enhance mutual operational capability, and exercise interoperability and to build cooperation between the Coast Guards of Maldives, India and Sri Lanka.” It is clear that both Maldives and Sri Lanka are of strategic importance to New Delhi and to its maritime security interests.
The ‘Dosti’ exercise was launched way back in 1991 between India and Maldives as bilateral exercise. It became trilateral when Sri Lanka joined the duo in 2012. Ships of Indian navy, Maldives national defence forces and Sri Lankan navy take part in this trilateral exercise. The vessels operated this time near the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEC) of three countries in the southern Arabian Sea. Indian Coast Guard vessels, the ICGS Vajra and ICGS Apoorva, joined the Sri Lanka Coast Guard, SLCGS Suraksha, its MNDF Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft Dornier and the defence forces of for the five-day exercise.
The scope of the exercise is quite large. According to experts the scope is based on the realisation that, if there is a maritime accident, or if there is an ecological disaster like an oil spill, sometimes the coast guard of one nation cannot tackle it alone. Thus, the exercises carried out over the past ten years have focused on exercises and drills on providing assistance in sea accidents, eliminating sea pollution, and the Coast Guard’s procedure and conduct during situations such as oil spills and other similar disasters.
The significance of the exercise consists of the following. One, these exercises help coordination and mutual support during joint operations and missions undertaken by participating countries, promotes intelligence sharing and help enhance interoperability. Two, although piracy is not a major issue in this part of the Indian Ocean, these kinds of exercises also help coast guards with training for possibilities of any mishap occurring. Three, these exercises help develop a better understanding of the other nation’s coast guard operations and how to enhance coordination during different kinds of missions.
These exercises help establish coordination among the countries, and in maritime activities co-ordination critical as one country, one coast guard cannot do much. The exercise relates to at least three contexts. One, the security context; in August this year, three countries agreed to work on four pillars of security cooperation. These related to maritime security, human trafficking, counter terrorism, and cyber security. This decision brought the National Security Advisors of the three countries into the picture. The NSA level talks augur well for the security in the Indian Ocean region. Experts suggest that NSA driven maritime cooperation will work better, if the Navies and the coast guards understand each other’s operations.
The second is the diplomatic context. The trilateral exercise coincides with the visit Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Didi. She will be the first defence minister to review the passing out parade in Indian naval academy. Didi will meet her counterparts on enhancing security and defence cooperation between both the countries. She met and was adequately briefed by the Indian High Commissioner on her scope of diplomatic engagements in India.
At the same time, Sri Lankan Minister of Finance, Basil Rajapaksha was in India from 1st December 2021 to meet the Indian ministers. The purpose was to enhance the collaboration. Basil Rajapaksha, brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksha and the Prime Minister and former President Mahendra Rajapaksha was inducted into the Cabinet last July and will have diplomatic heft. The tri-lateral exercise brings diplomatic dividends.
The third is the political context. All countries in South Asia except India appear to be vulnerable to bullying and bargaining by Beijing. They are compelled to negotiate with Beijing for unavoidable economic reasons as China has been propped up by the West as an economic power-house. Quite a few sectors of economy may not function without inputs from China, and Beijing is shrewd enough to take political advantage of such dependability by economies of the world, especially from neighbouring South Asia. Therefore, any bilateral exercise in this case, a trilateral one, among South Asian countries will yield political cooperation in international politics.
It is held by experts that New Delhi must have sound and healthy relations with her neighbours. The former Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee of BJP had famously said, “you can change your friends, but you cannot change your neighbours”. His successor from the same party, Narendra Modi is now the Prime Minister for the second consecutive term. He began well with the neighbours by inviting all the heads of States to his swearing-in ceremony. He made his first foreign visit as the Prime Minister to Bhutan. His first visit to Nepal also received euphoric reception.
In his second term, and few years down the line, relations began to sour between New Delhi and its neighbours including the close friend Nepal, let alone Pakistan. China is a factor in driving a wedge between New Delhi and Kathmandu and making it worse with Islamabad. That is precisely the test of diplomacy as the vested interest will muddy the waters for their selfish interest, and New Delhi is in muddied waters vis-à-vis most of the neighbours. Therefore, the trilateral exercise should clean it up at least partly. More such exercises and bilateral activities will be good for reviving good neighbourliness. Let us hope this happens.