The temptation to link the Maldivian absence to either the Indian troop withdrawal or the Muizzu leadership continuing with the pre-poll demand for revisiting the international maritime border with the host, Mauritius, or both was inescapable in certain circles

N Sathiya Moorthy Firstpost 15 December 2023

Meeting in the Mauritius capital of Port Louis recently, the National Security Advisors and/or senior officials of the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) reiterated their collective role and responsibility in ensuring the safety, security and stability of the Indian Ocean amid traditional, non-traditional and emerging hybrid challenges.

According to reports, they also reviewed the progress in implementing conclusions of the fifth meeting in Maldives last year, and also agreed upon a roadmap of activities for 2024.

The CSC agenda deliberately focuses only on ‘five pillars’ for now to avoid overlapping with bilateral initiatives among member-nations and to build collective confidence and working style before possibly moving on to address larger regional concerns.

Accordingly, maritime safety and security, countering terrorism and radicalisation, combating trafficking and transnational organised crime, cyber-security and protection of critical infrastructure, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, form the collective consensus agenda for the CSC at present.

The regional nations have made the CSC a limited yet serious activity as they have been vying with one another to organise the collective programmes tasked to them. They are mostly in the form of conferences involving experts from these nations, on topics flowing from the ‘five pillars’, so as to strengthen mutual understanding, cooperation and exchanges.

Throughout the preceding year, the conclave’s members and observer states engaged in a multitude of activities, showcasing a broad spectrum of collaborative efforts. These initiatives encompassed the investigation of terrorism cases, countering narcotics-trafficking, addressing cyber-crime, and collaborative efforts on diverse topics such as marine pollution, maritime law, coastal security, oceanography, hydrography, and cyber-security.

As a regional power-house, India may have answers to at least some of the major problems afflicting the region in the chosen areas. However, other nations without references to their sizes, too, have experiences from which one another can learn.

India is not an exception in this learning experience. For instance, Sri Lanka has acquired mastery over cost-effective maritime terrorism of the LTTE’s ‘Sea Tigers’ kind from which other member-nations can learn and train.

In doing so, Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) did have effective intelligence inputs provided by the Indian neighbour, facilitated by the immediate needs of the relatively resource-rich India.

The success of the Port Louis conclave centres on the unanimous agreement on a roadmap for strategic activities in the New Year. In doing so, they reiterated their commitment to tackling traditional, non-traditional, and emerging hybrid challenges in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), or what these nations share in the vast seas.

In his speech at Port Louis, the sixth in the series, Indian NSA Ajith K Doval emphasised the CSC’s crucial role in “ensuring regional security and stability and highlighted the significance of continued engagements under the different pillars of cooperation”.

He also called on Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth. Bilateral security cooperation has been so strong between the two nations that Mauritius, since Independence in 1968 and the formation of a security apparatus, has been appointing only a veteran officer from India as its NSA.

Absence explained

The absence of a Maldivian representative at the annual NSA conclave was a noticeable feature or non-feature this year. The Maldivian government and media were silent on the subject for a few days but they have opened up since. However, a week later, a senior blamed it on the previous government’s failure to complete necessary administrative tasks.

“Ties and any ongoing work with the countries will not be weakened from not participating in the meeting this time,” he told the web journal, Adhadhu.

However, there was no clarification if the government’s decision was communicated to the permanent CSC secretariat at Colombo or to the hosts, Mauritius, if not to every member-nation as is generally done.

There was also no explanation if the predecessor Solih dispensation had done the required paper work for Vice-President Hussain Mohamed Latheef to travel to Beijing, where he participated and addressed the ‘China-Indian Ocean Regional Forum on Development Cooperation’ the very same week – or, if the current Muizzu government did that preparatory for after assuming office on 17 November.

The CSC in a way grew out of the Maldives-India bilateral, bi-annual Maldives-India Coast Guard exercises in areas of non-traditional security since 1995. It became a trilateral after Sri Lanka joined in 2011 after the conclusion of the LTTE war two years later. In 2021, it was formalised as CSC, based out of Colombo, with Mauritius joining as a full-member and Seychelles and Bangladesh as observers.

Even at commencement, Pakistan had reportedly evinced an interest in the CSC, by referring to Bangladesh’s presence, but smaller nations in the grouping pointed to Islamabad’s unending squabble with India in SAARC, which has since died a natural death – and denied entry. That owed to a general perception in these member-nations that they individually and collectively, did not have the capacity to secure their seas, and yet, they did not want extra-regional powers’ muscle-flexing in the region. As the larger regional power, India was their natural choice.

The reference of course was/is to the US, which has the contested Diego Garcia base, as Mauritius wants it back, and also China, which has since got a so-called civilian foothold in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Though no member-nation is talking about such contradictions in the multilateral forum, they do remain.

When the trilateral was born with an NSA-level confabulation in Maldives, the country reportedly offered to host a permanent secretariat of the grouping. The idea took shape only when the CSC was created in the Sri Lankan capital. The city’s name, ‘Colombo’ formed a part of the grouping’s name, as well.

Yet, the CSC’s work is confined to areas of non-traditional security concerns, which, for instance, has expanded to include cyber-crimes but was unknown when it all began. There is also clarity among member-nations that it is not (yet) a forum for traditional security cooperation, where bilateral is the norm among them.

At Port Louis, the international media initially failed to notice the absence of Maldives. It became clear only after the Indian High Commission posted a brief report on its social media account, naming the nations that were represented. Maldives’ name was missing.

There was even a social media speculation if it flowed from the Muzzu government’s perceived decision to downgrade the nation’s participation in multilaterals, but again there was no clarity if it was confined to those not falling within the UN format or otherwise.

Such speculation was fuelled also by President Muizzu sort of down-grading the office of the NSA, which carried a Cabinet rank under previous regimes.

Under President Solih earlier, a senior politician, Mariya Didi was both Defence Minister and NSA. As President, Muizzu named Ibrahim Latheef, former police deputy commissioner, nation’s number two top cop, as the NSA. Under the circumstances, Maldives’ CSC participation will now be keenly watched.

Ever-expanding scope

The question now is if the CSC has reached a stage and progression where member-nations can or will have to consider converting it into a defence cooperation agreement, covering areas of traditional security concerns and cooperation, as well. Where it exists, traditional security cooperation in the region has been bilateral in nature.

A close consideration of facts and material available in the public domain would indicate that there is a need and scope for continuing with the CSC as it exists with a limited agenda but with ever-expanding scope for greater engagements within the defined parameters.

In a world where cyber-security concerns, for instance, has only been getting increasingly deeper and broader, pooling national resources will become an inevitable guarantor for nationhood and sovereignty than any other external inducements.

Even on the matters of relative traditional concerns in the area of non-traditional security, like environment and ecological issues, such needs are growing by the hour. If nations like Maldives and the sea-fronts of other nations face massive sea-erosion and fears of submersion, seasonal cyclones have been the bane of all these island/coastal nations, particularly Bangladesh. Then, there are occasional oil spills in the seas, which again is a common concern for more than one reason.

All these require collective policies, and cooperation, even if bilateral. The former is determined by common orientation, the latter by access and resources.

In geographical rather than political terms, India is at the centre of it all. The nation is also relatively better endowed in terms of resources, starting with human and economic resources, both of which aid in developing the skills and procuring the required equipment, at least for emergency relief, as happened with last year’s tanker fire in the Sri Lankan seas.

This apart, the complexities of multilateral cooperation in the region on traditional security matters is fraught with questions and doubts, if not outright suspicion and animosity.

The Maldivian demand of the incumbent Muizzu government for withdrawing the Indian troops stationed there exclusively to undertake emergency evacuations form distant islands that become inaccessible by sea in times of heavy rains and high tides, and also for aerial surveillance for large-scale drug-smuggling, flows from a domestic political protest against the previous Solih government.

All CSC member-nations are democracies, and many of them face domestic political inconsistencies in matters of foreign and security policy and cooperation. There is also the legacy of unspoken yet unfounded suspicions and fears, often motivated and even more propagated – at times with external support to sub-serve an external cause.

Geography as legacy

Yet, with the Maldivian absence from the Mauritius discussions being what it was, the CSC as a whole will be expecting a formal communication or informal consultations at least with the friendly Sri Lankan secretariat in the coming days and weeks, if not already initiated.

The temptation to link the Maldivian absence to either the Indian troops-withdrawal or the Muizzu leadership continuing with the pre-poll demand for revisiting the international maritime border with the host, Mauritius, or both, was inescapable in certain circles. However, the Maldivian clarification has since cleared matters, or so it seems.

For instance, even if those were actually Male’s grouse, the CSC charter and past practices over the first five years prohibits taking up what essentially are bilateral issues.

It may now apply to Maldives’ IMBL dispute with Mauritius, which Muizzu had promised to reopen if elected President. That India and Sri Lanka have kept their differences over the presence of Chinese ‘spy ships’ in Sri Lankan waters bilateral is a pointer for all CSC member-nations.

For further example, you again have successive experience(s) of the Maldivian people, over the past several decades, who, cutting across political and ideological divides, have understood the reality of regional cooperation, involving Sri Lanka through several centuries and India in the past many decades. Their government(s) in the past too had understood it all well. It cannot be that every new government needs a new lesson for mother nature to reiterate the legacy that geography alone teaches. It applies to every member-nation and also to the CSC as a regional grouping.

(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator. Email:


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