The Maritime Relations of India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka: Part Two

6 May 2021 Raj Mittal, FDI Associate Download PDF

The three countries must contend with a number of common threats in regard to their bilateral and trilateral relationships as well as finding ways to enhance those relationships. Sitting astride busy sea lines of communication, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are vulnerable to oil pollution. Through capacity building, India should equip them in managing such emergencies, while officers who have undergone military training in India and now hold senior positions in the Maldivian military and the Sri Lankan Government can further facilitate useful links with India.

Key Points

  • Sitting astride busy sea lines of communication, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are vulnerable to oil pollution. Through capacity building, India should equip them in managing such emergencies.
  • Sri Lanka’s geographic advantage, coupled with India’s and its own pool of maritime professionals, could enable them to service the international maritime community.
  • India should try to win over the politically-powerful Buddhist clergy with its strong connections to Buddhism.
  • Officers who have undergone military training in India and now hold senior positions in the Maldivian military and the Sri Lankan Government can further facilitate links with India.


Having examined some aspects of the India-Maldives-Sri Lanka trilateral relationship in the first part of this paper, this part will examine some of the common threats with which the three countries must contend in regard to their individual, bilateral and trilateral relationships as well as find ways to enhance the relationships.


The following initiatives suggest ways to enhance the trilateral relationship.

  1. Environmental Security

A Lowy Institute report is unequivocal on the security priorities of island nations: ‘Indeed, for many Indian Ocean countries, especially the island states, environmental security issues come pretty well at the top of their list of security concerns.’ The Maldives and Sri Lanka sit astride busy sea lines of communication (SLOCs) heavily traversed by ships. The island countries are vulnerable to ship traffic-related oil pollution.

In September 2020, a fire occurred in the engine room of the oil tanker MT New Diamond when she was off Sri Lanka and said to carry a cargo of 270,000 tonnes of crude oil. ‘Two Sri Lankan naval ships, one Indian naval ship and three Indian coast guard vessels were deployed in the (fire-fighting) operations.’ A catastrophe was averted by the Sri Lanka Navy aided by a very robust presence of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coastguard (ICG). One news report noted, ‘The Maldives, about 1,000km south-west of Sri Lanka, has a large coral eco-system in its waters and expressed concern over a potential spill.’ The above “fire in the engine-room” related incident was not as time-critical as other incidents can be and, in this instance, the Indian Navy and the ICG provided timely assistance. If an oil tanker were involved in a grounding or collision off the Maldivian or Sri Lankan coasts, it would demand urgent and immediate assistance to prevent an oil spill or limit the damage due to an oil spill. The short response time required would not allow timely Indian assistance. Due to their capacity constraints, the Maldives and Sri Lanka cannot deal with such emergencies on their own. Therefore, the need for training facilities for capacity-building is acute for both the Maldives and Sri Lanka. If India does not address the issue, it yields space for other powers to step in and do so in its place. Past experience indicates this trend: ‘India’s inability to provide Sri Lanka with war-fighting stores due to the Tamil Nadu factor during the war brought in both Pakistan and China who became willing suppliers.’

With the ICG as its lead agency, India should establish Marine Spills and Environment Protection training facilities in those two countries. Acting while the MT New Diamond incident is still fresh in the memories of the peoples of the Maldives and Sri Lanka, coupled with the trilateral mandate, could facilitate such an endeavour. India should also explore establishing Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) in the waters off the Maldives and Sri Lanka. ‘VTS  are shore side systems which range from the provision of simple information messages to ships, such as position of other traffic or meteorological hazard warnings, to extensive management of traffic within a port or waterway.’ Such a service will mitigate ship traffic-related oil pollution threats.

  1. Patrolling the Eight Degree Channel and Dondra Head SLOCs

Jane Chan, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, holds that, ‘Regional co-operation is fundamental to the maintenance of good order at sea and the security of these sea lanes in the Indian Ocean.’ The bi-annual India-Maldives DOSTI exercises were originally started in 1991 to strengthen co-operation between Indian and Maldivian Coast Guards and to enhance mutual capabilities for search and rescue operations, combating piracy, damage control and casualty evacuation at sea. ‘The present expansion of the Joint training exercises to include Sri Lanka from 2012 onwards marks an important milestone in the evolution of the DOSTI exercises.’ Interestingly, the third NSA-level meeting in March 2014 also focused on new areas of co-operation, including search and seizure operations. With the ever-increasing amount of maritime traffic, the frequency of the DOSTI exercise should be scaled up to be made an annual event and hosted in turn by India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

More than US$18 trillion ($23.7 trillion) worth of goods are transported across the Eight Degree Channel (which separates India’s Minicoy Island from the Maldives) annually. Located on the main east-west maritime trade routes from the Suez Canal, Red Sea and Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, the SLOCs off Sri Lanka’s Dondra Head have high traffic density. For enhanced maritime governance, a Presence and Surveillance Mission option during DOSTI exercises in the Eight Degree Channel and the SLOCs off Dondra Head should be considered. As mandated in the Trilateral 2014, training in Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations, possibly in co-ordination with the national shipping line/s, should be the next logical step. The participating coast guards can exercise co-operative and opposed boarding of merchant vessels. To the governments and the people of the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India, VBSS would indicate their joint forces’ resolve to ensure the continued maintenance of good order at sea. To the international maritime community, it would indicate the coastal states’ collective determination to maintain a rules-based order in the maritime space.

  1. Combatting Piracy

Today, ‘over a million seafarers, on more than 50,000 merchant ships, transport more than 80 per cent of global cargo trade to ports all over the world. These seamen and ships run a gauntlet of threats to reach their destinations – threats such as terrorism, local conflict, and piracy.’ Piracy and armed robbery on the world’s seas was on the rise in the first nine months of 2020, according to a new report issued by the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau. The threat of piracy has brought a paradigm change in merchant marine operations by way of privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP). As explained in a Lowy Institute report, ‘private military security companies (PCASP) embark from ports near the Gulf of Aden, including Port Djibouti, Salalah, Muscat, and Dar-Es-Salaam. A common port for disembarkation is Galle in southern Sri Lanka….’ Sri Lanka’s locational advantage, abutting busy SLOCs, coupled with Sri Lanka’s and India’s pool of highly trained former navy professionals provide them enormous scope to co-operate in the provision of PCASP services. Employment opportunities for their naval veterans and the marine commandos will be a significant spinoff.

The Maldivians are highly skilled seafarers and valued as ships’ crew by shipowners and ship managers worldwide. The Maldives has, however, faced headwinds lately: ‘The Maldives had nearly 1,000 seamen serving on ships in the Maldives and worldwide during the ‘90s. To our despair, the remaining number of active seamen at present (August 2019) is about 200 only.’ As articulated by former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, ‘the Maldives needed the assistance and support from various overseas institutions.’ India should make available seats for the Maldivian merchant marine officers and seamen in the Indian Maritime University and other training institutes as well as explore their employment opportunities on board Indian-flagged and Indian-owned vessels. That could mitigate the hardships of the Maldivian sailors, and the benefit to the Indian shipping industry from the professional workforce could be very advantageous.

  1. “Old Boy” Diplomacy

While addressing the student officers at India’s National Defence College (NDC) in 2018, the Australian High Commissioner to India said:

The relationships forged here have helped build the trust and genuine friendships which underpin our strategic partnership. You will recall that our Governor-General, General Sir Peter Cosgrove, graduated in 1994. He was so pleased to be able to connect with his batch mates during his recent visit here. And the Defence Adviser at the Australian High Commission, Captain Simon Bateman who joins us today, graduated from the College just last year.

The fact that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa; Admiral Jayanth Colombage, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary; Maj. Gen. Abdulla Shamaal, Chief of the Defence Force of the Maldives, and Col. Mohamed Saleem, Commandant Maldives Coast Guard are alumni of India’s Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), while Major-General Kamal Gunaratne, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary and Vice-Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne, Sri Lankan navy chief are alumni of the NDC, is significant. The relationships they forged during their time in Indian military institutions should be explored in the context of the countries’ strategic relationships. Admiral Colombage is a Guest Professor at Sichuan University and Leshan Normal University in China and an adjunct professor at the National Institute of South China Sea Studies, at Haikou, China. There is a compelling case for India to make similar arrangements for Admiral Colombage at Indian military academies. The Chief of Defence Force of the Maldives, the Commandant of the Maldives Coast Guard and Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary should be included as guest lecturers if they are so inclined and, if they are not, inviting them as chief guests at the military graduations points a way forward towards deeper ties with their institutions. Also, the camaraderie developed as young cadets through shared initiation rituals trumps most other relationships. Such bonds are possibly the best facilitator of military inter-operability. It is, therefore, reassuring that the graduating course of India’s National Defence Academy in May 2020 had cadets both from the Maldives and Sri Lanka. With the Indo-Pacific acquiring greater salience in India’s strategic planning, increasing the seats available to young foreign officers at the primary and higher training institutions in India should also be explored.

  1. Buddhism’s Maritime Heritage

India spread Buddhism to Sri Lanka and to South-East Asia mostly via its maritime trade links; ‘One of the main conduits for the transmission of Buddhism was the ancient trade routes that criss-crossed Asia by land and sea. Monks would often … travel by sea around the coastal waters of Asia.’ The Buddhist clergy is an important participant in Sri Lankan politics. Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, a doctoral scholar at the University of Leicester, opines, ‘The answer lies in … developing ties with the powerful Buddhist clergy.’ In Ashok K. Mehta’s opinion, ‘The (Sri Lankan) electorate was attracted to Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (the Rajapaksa brothers’ party) by the decisive image of two war-winning brothers whose manifesto was couched in Sinhala Buddhist ideology.’ That the swearing in of the present Cabinet was held in a Buddhist shrine reaffirms the clergy’s hold over Sri Lankan politics. India should capitalise on its Buddhist heritage and conceptualise a Buddhist maritime organisation (BMO) similar to OM Ships that operates the vessel Logos Hope. The Logos Hope’s missionary teams conduct church services in ports, hold Christian literature exhibitions and provide community care across the world. The BMO ship could do the same in Sri Lanka and, subsequently, in the wider Buddhist world. The vessel should be manned by a mixed Sri Lankan and Indian crew and have onboard Buddhist preachers. That would facilitate winning over the powerful Sri Lankan clerics.

Bodh Gaya, Kushinagar and Sarnath in India are the most revered sites in Buddhism and are connected by international airports. India should facilitate the visit of the Sri Lankan clergy to Indian pilgrimage sites. Arranging the Sri Lankan clergy’s meeting with the Tibetan clergy and their audience with the Dalai Lama would be the next logical step. It could constitute useful elements of Machiavellian guile and provide a counter-narrative to ‘China’s push to insert itself culturally into South Asia and give roots to its influence beyond the economic arena’. The Dalai Lama’s age makes such an initiative time-sensitive.

As opined by C. Raja Mohan, ‘… Delhi will be the loser if it makes the entire relationship hostage to the question of Tamil minority rights.’ For intractable Tamil issues and issues related to infrastructure projects, the success could be most promising if progressed as backchannel diplomacy with the imprimatur of the state. That would best facilitate an “Eelam minus” solution and a re-think on infrastructure projects. India, too, should encourage its neighbours to nurture a more positive image of each other at the government and societal levels.


Partnerships allow states to aggregate their capabilities and collaborate on common challenges. Speaking at an NDC webinar in 2020, Admiral Karambir Singh, the Indian Navy chief posited, ‘Given the expanse of the IOR, there is a recognition that no one country can do it alone. Therefore, there is a need to work together.’ The initiatives suggested above could provide ways for the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India to work more closely together.




About the Author

Raj Mittal is an Indian Navy veteran and a master mariner. He has sailed on board bulk carriers trading worldwide for eleven years. Raj is a graduate of the Defence Services Staff College, India, and holds a master’s degree in Defence and Strategic studies. He is a Perth-based marine consultant.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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