By Dr. Adarsh Vijay
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is being revamped as an arena for an emerging order of new maritime equations. The recently concluded visit of Admiral Muhammad Zakauallah, the Chief of Pakistan Navy (PN), to Sri Lanka, in June 2017, underscores the possibilities of a renewed synergy in terms of naval cooperation between the two countries. What are the implications of this developing naval diplomacy between Pakistan and Sri Lanka for India? Is the escalating proximity between Islamabad and Colombo part of a larger agenda, given the Chinese interests in the region? Does New Delhi need a new strategy to secure its interests in the IOR?
The immediate concern for India is the risk that it may encounter in terms of losing the geopolitical leverage that it traditionally exercised over its southern neighbour – Sri Lanka. New Delhi has invariably been wary of contexts which bring any of its “friends” closer either to Islamabad or Beijing. Hence, a Pakistan-Sri Lanka nexus can never render a respite for India. As viewed from the geographic proximity between India and Sri Lanka, the trends bear serious implications for the security establishments based in New Delhi.
An enhanced cooperation between Islamabad and Colombo, particularly a naval cooperation, is indicative of an increasing presence of Pakistan's flotilla in the Lankan waters. Overt interests like Combined Naval Exercises, offer the option for PN to get accustomed and sharpen their assimilation of an “alien” oceanic environment close to Indian waters. Prospects are high that the Pakistani submarines will find their voyage to Sri Lanka in the long run, if the bilateral naval cooperation takes further leaps. Access to hydrological and bathymetric data, along with thermocline properties of the waters, as a covert intention, can help advance the grip of Islamabad with respect to the operability of the Indian Navy in its littorals.
Sri Lanka is a participant in Aman, an international naval exercise of the PN, in last February. Colombo’s presence was marked by the arrival of its naval offshore patrol vessel – SLS Samudra. As part of a combined naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, two PN warships – PNS Saif and PNS Nasr - had docked at the Colombo Port in March 2017. The stationing was on the backdrop of an overseas deployment to the South East Asian States. The exercise sought to advance the operational coordination and inter-operability between the two navies. As part of a Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise, two Pakistani naval ships – PNS Zulfiqar, a Sword Class F-22P Frigate, and PMSS Dasht – were in Sri Lanka in May 2017. In a meeting with the PN Chief, Colombo also emphasized the “decisive role” played by the Pakistani government during the civil war, which ended in 2010, against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
New Delhi’s rapport with Colombo is a fluctuating one. Besides, the naval cooperation between Pakistan and Sri Lanka is not a new development. Hence, it negates the likelihoods of terming it as a “Chinese innovation” in the IOR. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the infrastructure diplomacy, and the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) of China has brought the island state closer to Beijing. It is also worthy of notice that Islamabad is already under the Chinese strings with regard to the much commended China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Such a coincidence cannot deny the possibilities of the rising defence ties between Islamabad and Colombo being backed by Beijing.
Hence, it also appears imperative to approach this new “naval reciprocity” between Pakistan and Sri Lanka from a Chinese perspective. The internal cohesion among its allies is a pre-requisite for consolidating Beijing’s interests in the IOR. Therefore, a naval cooperation between Islamabad and Colombo can serve the interests of China, as a substitute, particularly in a hypothetical scenario wherein Beijing might suffer a setback in its strategic clout over the region. So, such a collaboration might seek to act to counter India’s geopolitical edge.
The recently held trilateral Malabar Exercise, an annual multilateral naval exercise, involving India, United States and Japan, in July 2017, posed a political signalling against China. Nonetheless, Pakistan cannot afford to choose to remain ignorant of the message it sought to serve given the heightening intentions of Islamabad in the IOR. The Malabar Exercise was conducted within a short time following the visit of the PN chief to Sri Lanka. Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) was one of the critical elements of the maritime drills which highlighted mutual confidence, inter-operability and the sharing of best practices. Pakistan will have enough to worry over from this naval exercise as it provides India the opportunity to familiarise the know-how of submarine monitoring and hunting in its littorals. Once New Delhi acquires the optimum potential in this domain, Islamabad’s possible intentions in terms of submarine deployment in the near-seas of India, if at all, shall be severely affected. Besides, the role of US in the exercise obviously offers a check on Pakistan.
As of now, the New Delhi-Colombo ties may not lead to derailment. Given the notion of strategic autonomy, India will have to revere Sri Lanka by restricting itself from dictating terms to Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, India is being allured into a quagmire which demands the ability to voice its concerns with the Sri Lankan authorities over its rising proximity with Pakistan. New Delhi will have to exhaust and employ better diplomatic capital in keeping Colombo close.
Dr. Adarsh Vijay is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Madras Christian College, Chennai, India.