India to sign trilateral maritime deal

India      India will sign a trilateral maritime cooperation agreement with Sri Lanka and the Maldives next week, in a move to counter China’s bid to spread its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region.

National Security Advisor (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon will visit Colombo next week to hold talks with his Sri Lankan and Maldivian counterparts for finalising a framework agreement for maritime cooperation among the three nations.

Sources told Deccan Herald that the agreement, to be signed during the NSA’s visit to Sri Lanka, will seek to set up a mechanism for trilateral cooperation in maritime security, information sharing, cooperation on search and rescue in the Indian Ocean region, surveillance of the Exclusive Economic Zones, collective response to marine oil pollution and capacity building through training and exercises.

Menon will also call on Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his visit to Colombo.

New Delhi’s move to sign a trilateral maritime cooperation agreement with Colombo and Male comes in the backdrop of China’s growing influence over Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Negotiation for the MoU started in 2011, but gained momentum only towards the end of 2012 and early this year.

China set up its embassy in Maldives in 2011 and has since been lobbying hard to get involved in the development of infrastructure in some of the strategically located islands of the archipelagic nation. New Delhi has of late been finding it a bit difficult to maintain its traditional influence on political and economic affairs of Maldives.

India has also been concerned over Chinese presence at the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

Hambantota, a town on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka, is being turned into a major port and Colombo had an agreement with Beijing for Chinese companies’ involvement in developing facilities at the port. The port, like Gwadar in Pakistan and Sittwe in Myanmar, is perceived to be part of the “string of pearls,” the strategic assets China has been developing in the Indian Ocean region, purportedly to encircle India.

Rajapaksa’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing in the last week of May saw the two countries upgrading the bilateral ties to a “strategic cooperation partnership.”

A release by the Sri Lankan government quoted Xi telling Rajapaksa that China was “strongly opposed to foreign countries interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.”

New Delhi has been repeatedly asking the Sri Lankan government to ensure equal political, social and economic rights for the Tamils of the island nation. Ever since the Sri Lankan Army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrillas in 2009, New Delhi has been prodding Colombo to move towards a national reconciliation and prove alleged human rights violation by its soldiers during the crackdown on rebels.

China’s $ 1.05 billion aid commitment to Sri Lanka was the largest in 2012, while India ranked second with $ 700 million.(Deccan Herald)

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