Colombo Security Conclave: Implications for China in the Indian Ocean? « Khabarhub
Monday, June 24th, 2024

Colombo Security Conclave: Implications for China in the Indian Ocean?



The Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) was hosted virtually by Sri Lanka from its headquarters Colombo in early August.

A meeting of top-ranking officials, involving 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, counter-terrorism, and disaster management.

The observer nations, 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 behavior 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.

The expansion of CSC’s membership indicates widening areas of cooperation and the growing convergence among Indian Ocean Region nations to work together on a common platform thus deepening their engagement under a regional framework.

The plenary session emphasized 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 as 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 in 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 sub-regional 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 consider the China debate.

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 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 returns falling back into China.

The BRI 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 BRI 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.

The string of pearls strategy paved 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 BRI 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 into past India failed the race in winning the hands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives against China due to its poor strategic forecast.

Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, and other nations don’t want to join an organization that may be perceived as overtly “Anti-China”. This is the fact due to which the CSC formerly NSAs remained limbo right after its establishment in early 2011.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in recent times have shown clear advancements of isolating themselves from the wicked encirclement strategies of China.

The dragon’s potential port and oil pipeline project in Bangladesh has shown no progress to date and is thus considered a failed one, but still China under Xi-Jinping’s administration has not given up the venture.

As noticeable in the case of Djibouti where China established its only overseas military base, Bangladesh has not allowed Chinese investments in their deep port projects as it will lead to a suitable naval base for China to gain an immediate gateway into the Bay of Bengal.

Unlike Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Bangladesh executed prudent macro-economic management to not fall into the Chinese debt trap.

However, Paulo Casaca founder of the South Asia Democratic Forum stated in his writings that the Bangladesh government has been relatively careless of their participation in BRI which brought potential geopolitical dependency on the communist giant.

The volume of investments made by China in Bangladesh makes it the second most valuable component of BRI after Gwadar in Pakistan.

China tried to interfere in the internal matters of Bangladesh influencing them not to engage with India and western powers such as the United States.

Through the CSC, the littoral member nations not only might transform into a navy anchor hub for India but also strengthen their domestic maritime security as these littoral nations possess a tiny navy unit.

From an Indian perspective, the elephant sees sub-regional engagement like the CSC as critical for securing its strategic interests.

The expansion of CSC’s membership indicates widening areas of cooperation and the growing convergence among Indian Ocean Region nations to work together on a common platform thus deepening their engagement under a regional framework.

Moreover, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has not made an exemplary feat in recent times. All other major sub-regional alliances are being a stalemate.

Thus, the revival of CSC proved to be a reflection of the new Minilateral heading towards enhancing sub-regional diplomacy, which India has attempted to foster in the neighborhood to keep Chinese advancements at bay.

Soon, India through the CSC might look forward to sharing defense technologies, increasing its naval presence in the Indian ocean (in its backyard), and strengthen overseas investments in the CSC member nations especially littoral states like Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles.

Through the CSC, the littoral member nations not only might transform into a navy anchor hub for India but also strengthen their domestic maritime security as these littoral nations possess a tiny navy unit.

This will open fast travel portals for the navy units in the Indian Ocean, thus keeping a due check on Chinese patrol units. The Colombo Security Conclave is a way forward in establishing an unbreakable security bond in the Indian Ocean.

(Anirudh is pursuing his MSc Strategic Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore)

Publish Date : 07 October 2021 08:21 AM

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