Addressing Gaps in Sri Lanka’s Maritime Security Architecture


By PKBalachandran/Daily Mirror

Colombo, August 25: The recent Sri Lanka-India-China triangular controversy over the docking of the Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 5 at the Port of Hambantota, once again stresses the need for a Sri Lankan National Maritime Strategy, a functioning National Security Council (NSC) of experts and the appointment of a National Security Adviser (NSA) .

While Sri Lanka has an NSC, although weak, it does not have an NSA. The NSC must be made functional and an NSA must be appointed. Both must be duly licensed and staffed.

Yuan Wang 5 was allowed to dock at Hambantota without informing India with which Sri Lanka has a Maritime Domain Awareness Agreement (MDA) with the Maldives. After serious setbacks, the concerns expressed by India were taken on board by Sri Lanka. Indeed, he had imposed certain restrictions to allow the ship to dock. Eventually both India and China were satisfied as the ship was allowed to dock and India reaffirmed its friendship for Sri Lanka by gifting it with a Dornier maritime reconnaissance aircraft. In thanks, President Ranil Wikcremesinghe said that Sri Lanka and India are like two sides of a coin inseparable.

If only Sri Lanka had a functioning NSC and NSA, the matter would have been routed through them and a correct decision, based on existing agreements and geopolitical assessments, would have been made before things got out of hand. Ultimately, the issue spiraled out of control and threatened to spoil Sri Lanka’s relations with India and China, which the island nation could not afford at this stage.

Sri Lanka has had an NSC since 1999, but it malfunctioned in 2019 when it was unaware that Islamic radicals were planning to carry out suicide bombings, even though India had shared information about such a possibility more than once. . Caught up in personal conflicts, the NSC was a fractured body. President Sirisena would not want Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara to attend NSC meetings. And there was no NSA to coordinate security-related activities from a national security perspective.

No national maritime strategy

Sri Lanka does not even have a national maritime policy, even though it is an island country and historically all threats to it have come from the sea. Even the LTTE, which has plagued the Sri Lanka for three decades on earth, built itself and drew its strength from its bases abroad. It survived on fuel and armaments smuggled by sea. The LTTE was only crippled when its eight floating armories were destroyed in the open sea.

The LTTE was a creature of the sea and yet the island nation’s governments for decades viewed it as a land-based terrorist group that the military should primarily tackle.

In his article titled Maritime Strategy for National Development: Sri Lankan Perspective published in 2015 for the Kotelawala Defense Academy, Com. Rohan Joseph of the Sri Lankan Navy strongly urged the Sri Lankan authorities to formulate a comprehensive and long-term “national maritime strategy” which would be different and broader in scope than a “military maritime strategy”.

While world powers are aware of the strategic importance of the island of Sri Lanka, its rulers have ignored this aspect since the days of independence in 1948. Things were quite different when the British ruled the island. During World War II, after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, British leaders gave the defense of Sri Lanka or Ceylon the utmost importance in their fight against the Japanese. The British naval and air defenses in the island were greatly increased.

But all that faded after the war. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Tamil militants began using the Palk Strait to smuggle arms, that President JR Jayewardene wanted the navy to be strengthened. But the military-dominated Lankan military establishment canceled his plan. It was only in the 2000s that the government, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, gave a significant role to the navy in choking off the LTTE’s vital sea supply lines. The war could not have been won without the navy playing the leading role it did from 2008. The navy’s newly formed Small Boat Squadron fought the LTTE near the island’s shores using unconventional tactics.

But after the war ended in May 2009, no new maritime security threat assessments were made. No doctrine was developed to deal with post-war threats, including threats from the rapidly changing geopolitical and geomilitary environment.

This was so despite the fact that the only threat Sri Lanka faced after the war came from the sea. And according to Com. Joseph, these threats came from smugglers, drug and human traffickers, illegal fishermen and possibly maritime terrorists.

Due to India’s insistence, Sri Lanka recently entered into a trilateral agreement with India and the Maldives for maritime domain awareness. Com. Joseph says that international rapprochements are absolutely necessary because no nation can fight alone against new threats in the vast ocean. Then there are other issues like marine pollution, maritime disasters and search and rescue that need to be taken into account. Here too, international cooperation, particularly regional cooperation, is essential.

Military and national maritime strategy

Maritime strategy has two components: (1) defense of the sea and (2) defense of the “coastal”. The “coastal” includes land areas that are likely to be influenced by the sea. The coastline is home to three quarters of the world’s population, home to more than 80% of the world’s capitals and almost all of the international trade markets. The navy is supposed to provide “sea denial” to the enemy. Sea denial stems from “sea control,” says Com Joseph.

A national maritime strategy should also encompass other vital areas, including defending the country’s economy, the environment, and the country’s social and political systems. Military maritime strategy, on the other hand, covers combat at sea and policing the sea.

According to Com.Joseph, Sri Lanka needs a national marine strategy for the following reasons: In 2011, around 86% of Lanka’s fish supply came from the sea. oil and gas could easily open up a host of new economic opportunities, he adds. Sri Lanka is located on one of the most important international shipping routes. It must become a major hub for the handling and transhipment of containers. For this, a maritime strategy is essential.

The Delimitation of the Continental Shelf (DECOM), as provided for in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was initiated in 1999 by Sri Lanka and was completed in 2009. This unique feature extends over an area of ​​3000 km in length and 830 to 1430 km in width. Sri Lanka’s claim to the extended continental shelf is about 20 times its land area, Com.Joseph said.

“It is indeed a huge area for a small country like Sri Lanka. Monitoring, scientific research, infrastructure expansion, etc. are among the many important aspects that Sri Lanka will need to consider as part of a broader maritime strategic plan,” he said.

For the evolution of the National Maritime Strategy, including a Maritime Military Strategy, Sri Lanka needs a fully functional National Security Council (NSC) comprised of experts in a variety of relevant fields. And to coordinate all security activities, communicate regularly with the president and interact with foreign powers, the country must have a competent national security adviser who is familiar with geopolitics, regional and global strategic thinking and the national interests of Sri Lanka. Lanka. .



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