A media clarification issued by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence has brought to light two recent defence pacts it has signed with India that neither side officially announced.
“The recently signed maritime security pacts with the Government of India will not result in hindrance or threat to the national security of Sri Lanka,” said a media statement issued by the Ministry on Tuesday.
It referred to the “the receipt of Floating Dock Facility from the Government of India at no cost” and the provision of “Dornier Reconnaissance Aircraft” by India to Sri Lanka “free of charge”.
Ministry of Defence spokesman Colonel Nalin Herath told The Hindu on Tuesday that both pacts were signed on March 16, by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence from the Sri Lankan side, and an official of the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
The apparent secrecy around the development until now comes even as some in Sri Lanka’s political opposition flagged the agreements as “threats” to Sri Lanka’s national security and sovereignty. Sri Lanka “has sold its air space”, alleged Harin Fernando, a vocal MP from the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).
“Sri Lanka runs the risk of getting involved in a regional war owing to these agreements as India will get the opportunity of controlling Sri Lankan waters and skies, while China controls the port in Hambantota,” Mr. Fernando told Parliament. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), also in opposition, has accused the government of signing key defence agreements with India in return for the $1 billion assistance extended recently.
India has extended $ 2.4 billion support to Sri Lanka since the beginning of this year, to help the island nation cope with a severe economic meltdown. Since January, India has also signed several key bilateral agreements with Sri Lanka, including the joint development of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farms, and three major power projects in the north and east, involving the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Adani Group, apart from the recent pacts on maritime security.
While both the floating dock, and the Dornier aircraft have figured in bilateral discussions for some time, the actual signing of the agreements a fortnight ago was not officially confirmed until Tuesday. “The receipt of Floating Dock Facility from the Government of India at no cost has been projected to reduce the annual outlay of LKR. 600 million for outsourced docking repairs and this proposal has been in the pipeline since year 2015,” the MoD said.
The Dornier Reconnaissance Aircraft is deployed for maritime surveillance, search and rescue operations and to deliver information to various required platforms. “The unavailability of this capability was the motive for bilateral dialogues between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka during the last couple of years and it was agreed upon to provide one Dornier Reconnaissance Aircraft to Sri Lanka free of charge,” the MoD statement said. An Indian training team will stay in the island until the Sri Lanka Air Force gains required expertise, it added.
India’s assistance for greater maritime surveillance in Sri Lanka coincides with New Delhi’s own efforts to enhance Indian Ocean security, regional cooperation and intelligence sharing, as was underscored at the NSA-level meet of the Colombo Security Conclave. Addressing the forum held in the Maldives recently, NSA Ajith Doval called for a regional response to maritime challenges.
Meanwhile, a third maritime security pact was signed on Monday, when visiting External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris. It found specific mention in the Indian High Commission’s press release, listed among the “MOU for providing Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC)” among agreements signed. The MRCC’s network, to be set up by Bharat Electronics Ltd, will span seven sub-unit naval bases across the Sri Lankan coast, including in the southern port town of Hambantota, where China runs a large port.