International relations | South Asia

28 April 2022

While little-known outside the region, the Colombo Security Conclave is an increasingly important part of the Indian Ocean’s security landscape, Sankalp Gurjar writes.

The recent Colombo Security Conclave in Maldives’ capital, Male, was an important step in consolidating India’s engagement with the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and in the region’s security. The conference, which originally began as an initiative between India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka in 2011, was expanded to include Seychelles, Mauritius, and Bangladesh.

Mauritius joined the forum as a fourth member, while Bangladesh and Seychelles attended as observers. The host of the forum, Maldives’ defence minister Mariya Didi, expressed hope that these two observer states will soon join the forum as full members. The two day conclave was attended by the senior security officials from each participating country.

From India’s perspective, all five nations are crucial security partners, given their shared interests in South Asia and the wider IOR. They share concerns and face many of the same challenges, like terrorism, maritime security, human trafficking, and transnational crime, as well as the emerging challenges of cyber security and the protection of critical infrastructure – all of which was reflected in the roadmap adopted at the conclave.

The joint statement issued after the conclave noted that those in attendance ‘agreed upon a roadmap for further cooperation and collaboration’ to ‘facilitate robust mechanisms for coordinated responses, capacity building and strengthening information flow between member states’.

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This was a clear signal from India that notwithstanding other challenges, like the war in Ukraine, its maritime neighbourhood is a primary security concern. Many interconnected security challenges, especially in the domain of non-traditional security, affect the whole IOR, and the conclave acknowledged this in a visible way.

With all these members located in the IOR and strong strategic partners for India, their inclusion was a no-brainer, and the conclave was timely. In the last few years, the Indian Navy has delivered medical assistance to IOR island states including Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius to help them cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Maldives government is more willing to work with India than it has been in the recent past. Relations between Maldives and Bangladesh are on the upswing too.

The conclave also took place at a time when the international, regional, and domestic challenges are rising for its participating countries. The raging war in Ukraine, the imposition of severe economic sanctions on Russia, and the rise in global oil and food prices will affect the whole world and the IOR states are no exception.

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On top of this, strategic rivalries in the Indo-Pacific, including in South Asia and the IOR, between China and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries of India, Japan, Australia, and the United States are sharpening.

China’s growing presence in the region’s economic, political, and security affairs has underscored the need for other powers like India to take a leadership role in the region. This desire to be seen as a regional powerhouse alongside China may explain its increasing engagement with its IOR neighbours.

Growing Russian presence in the Indian Ocean will also present a peculiar set of challenges.

As Russia faces isolation in Europe, it may turn to Asia and Africa for support, making states like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka diplomatically critical. For India, the challenge lies in balancing ties with the Quad countries and with Russia as hostilities intensify.

Of course, Sri Lanka, a key member of the conclave, is now facing a severe economic crisis. It needs as much external support as possible to tide over the crisis. And in Maldives, opposition political parties and figures have become vocal in opposing deepening India-Maldives ties. India too faces the challenge of how to harness its accelerating economic growth for the future.

Amidst these challenges, the coming together of the conclave is significant. By acting as a ‘minilateral’ arena for India’s expanding engagement with the states of the Indian Ocean, it is clearly a useful forum for the region’s future.

If it can maintain its major strengths – limited membership, a focus on non-traditional security challenges, and the bringing together of states with shared concerns – the Colombo Security Conclave can evolve into a genuine driver of progress toward regional security.

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