By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke
The Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) was hosted virtually by Sri Lanka from its headquarters in Colombo in early August. A meeting of top-ranking officials such as deputy national security advisors (DNSAs) from Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives along with high-ranking government officials from observer nations of the CSC. This unique conclave deliberated security cooperation across “four pillars” namely maritime security, human trafficking, counterterrorism, and disaster management. The observer nations, namely Bangladesh, Maturities, and Seychelles are set to become permanent members of the Colombo Security Conclave at the next national security level meeting scheduled to take place in the Maldives later this year.
The CSC’s ambition is very clear. The emergence of the Indian Ocean Region as the new strategic battle arena comes along with its demerits too. Widening security concerns of sea piracy, goods (including drugs and arms) smuggling, controlling illegal entry into strategic sea lanes, combating maritime pollution and cyber security are some of the intersecting worries for the CSC nations.
Another outstanding cause for reviving this security conclave back to life was the aggressive maritime policy implemented by China in the Indian Ocean. Maritime policy behaviour of China towards the Indian Ocean is seen as a constant emerging threat by both permanent as well as current observer CSC nations. In late October 2020, Beijing held its fifth plenary session which deliberated upon the 11th five-year plan and the 2035 grand vision of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The plenary session emphasised expanding the domestic market based on consumption & innovation. China’s ambition as stated in the grand vision makes it strengthen its foothold in the Indian Ocean Region stretching from Djibouti in Africa to far East Asia beyond the South China Sea. Since 2020, the dragon’s aggressive advancements in the sea, especially in the Indian Ocean resulted in an eye-opener for India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Thus, the trilateral level National Security Advisors (NSAs) came back into action as Colombo Security Conclave which, was held in November 2020, the latter being in limbo since 2014.
In the aftermath of the meeting, there was an uproar among South Asian scholars that CSC must stay clear of the current QUAD-China face-offs. Although the revival of the trilateral meeting was an Indian effort, Scholars say that India should not bring long-rooted rivalry with China into the platform. Though Scholars debate the CSC should transcend beyond QUAD-China clashes and must serve as a personal subregional forum for combating non-traditional security concerns among its members. Upon deeper probing into the latter statement, the following facts would put why the Colombo Security Conclave must give equal priority to considering the China debate.
China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project created a fulcrum to leverage trillions of dollars of government loans and state-owned industries’ investments across Italy till the South China Sea and resulted in returns falling back into China. The OBOR is regarded as a serious threat by India as it breaks land sovereignty (of India) across the Indo-China Himalayan border, which in turn, has resulted in numerous border incursions, standoffs, and clashes since 2000. A part of OBOR project execution in peninsular India, which gave rise to the infamous maritime strategy (of China) known as the String of Pearls resulted in serious damages in the past to the current CSC member nations.
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The String of Pearls strategy paved way a clear route for China to encircle India in its peninsular region. Today the communist giant has or is building deep-water ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, an oil-gas pipeline in Myanmar and in Aksai Chin (China Occupied Kashmir), and a military logistic base in Djibouti. Unable to pay Chinese loans, these nations later fall into the debt trap. The classic example of the latter case is when Sri Lanka was forced to China’s 99-year lease of its Hambantota Port Region. It shows, China was using OBOR imitative to implement debt-trap diplomacy. After loading struggling economies with debt, they cannot repay, China leverages its role as a creditor to coerce them into ceding control over strategically important ports, resources, and commercial routes. Apart from Gwadar port (Baluchistan, Pakistan) and the Hambantota port which already fell victim to the dragon’s realpolitik, littoral islands like Maldives and nations in the IOR region are most exposed to the Chinese debt trap with an exception being India. Thus, looking at past India failed in the race in winning the hands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives against China due to its poor strategic forecast.
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All the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. For image credit click here. This article was originally published in Khabarhub and republished by the author in his book titled ‘Research Papers on Defence and Strategic Studies Vol. 1’.
About the Author
Anirudh Phadke is the founding-editor of The Viyug. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) and a certificate in Terrorism Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He currently works for an International Law Enforcement Organisation based in Singapore. He can be reached out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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