Blue Economy Geopolitics and IR

Sri Lanka’s Maritime Cooperation for regional growth and prosperity

International Maritime Boundary Line

India and Sri Lanka are very closely located countries, divided by 24 nautical miles Palk Strait. The Adams’s Bridge between Danuskodi in India and Talimannar in Sri Lanka has islets and sand dunes which are changing with current flow. This area is shallow and there are no ships, other than small fishing boats that can cross. Therefore, any ship moving from East to West or West to East of India has to go around Sri Lanka.

"The Palk Strait and Palk Bay are enclosed seas, which are considered to be very rich fishing grounds. India’s economic growth has helped Sri Lanka for its growth and prosperity."

The Colombo harbour in Sri Lanka has become hub port in the region due to handling of trans-shipment containers, especially those coming from India. Colombo handle around 7 million TEU (TEU – Twenty Equal Units) and India is a leader in providing these trans-shipment businesses. Colombo is a harbour which can handle world’s largest container carriers, known as ‘Triple E Ships’ which can carry more than 18000 TEU, more than 400 meters in length and a fraught of 15 meters.

Colombo Harbour Expansion Project

Renowned Indian Shipping Company, Adani investment, is developing and operating western terminal of new Colombo harbour and this is a welcome signal. However, as Colombo is running at almost full capacity, of its five container terminals, namely Jaya Container terminal, South Asia Gateway terminal, Unity container terminal, CICT- Colombo International Container terminal run by Chinese company in new Colombo harbour and Eastern Container terminal in new Colombo harbour. With all these terminals other than Eastern terminal running almost full capacity, Adani’s investment is very timely.

"ADANI Colombo West International Terminal with quay length of 1400 meters, alongside depth with 20 meters will allow Ultra Large Container Carriers and triple E ships to berth. There is an aim to process about 3.5 million TEU on transshipment in this new terminal."
Shipping density in Indian ocean


India’s footprint in Colombo is very important event with Chinese presence in Colombo harbour. With ever expanding Indian economy and imports/exports, I am still of the view, the present Colombo port development will not be sufficient to handle containers from India in 2030. As Indian exports have increased by 46% by last two years, Colombo harbour will not be sufficient.

"Therefore, India should see favorably to develop Vizanjum deep water harbour closer to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala by 2030. The location selected to this deep-water harbour is closer to main East-West main shipping lane."

India and Sri Lanka already taken initiative to have a larger Maritime Cooperation Agreement signed between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives on 6th March 2014 when present Sri Lankan President Hon Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Secretary of Defense to institutionalized already existing mutual cooperation. 

During Colombo Security Conclave this year at Malé, Maldives, where National Security Advisers, Defense Ministers and Defense Secretaries met, the stakeholder had decided to enhance agreement to take Mauritius and Seychelles onboard. Bangladesh has also shown its interest to join in.

Trilateral Maritime Cooperation agreement

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is the main topic in this agreement. Sharing details of White Shipping and Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) data shared from Sri Lanka and Maldives has enhanced MDA picture at Maritime Fusion Center at Gurugon.

The oil spill response and disaster relief coordination are the other factors covered in this agreement. India, Sri Lanka and Maldives will purchase oil spill response equipment compatible so that in any major event of oil spill, they can pool their equipment and Indian Coast Guard being most equipped will take the lead.

The quick response when super tanker MT New Diamond carrying 270,000 Tons of crude oil from Kuwait to India (Vizag) had caught fire off SE coast of Sri Lanka on 3rd September last year, it was a classic example of how these arrangements work. The fire was doused in no time, and major oil spill disaster was stopped.

Fire on Board Super tanker MT New Diamond

Naval Exercise “Dhosthi’ is another important exercise where all nations’ capability was tested. Further, table top exercises and frequent ship visits have enhanced the cooperation between these countries. Training of all most all Sri Lankan Naval officers on professional Naval courses from Sub Lieutenant Technical Courses to National Defense College courses is done by Indian government with no cost to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has bought two 100- meters in length Off Shore Patrol vessels (OPVs) from Goa Shipyard on Defense Credit Line extended by India. These are the largest War ships India has built for any other country.

Providing a 4000-ton floating dock and two Donier Maritime Surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka Navy and Air Force is in the final stages of discussions. US $ 6 million support to upgrade Maritime Search and Rescue Centre (Colombo) is already agreed. With these developments and recent economic support by PM Modi’s to Sri Lanka to come out of economic difficulties, has been highly appreciated by Sri Lankan public and government. India can use oil tank farm in Sri Lanka port in Trincomalee to stock strategic reserve of oil, when crude oil prices are low.

"It is important to note Sri Lanka Navy does not have ANY underwater detection and underwater deter capabilities. Even if a submarine is few meters away from busy Colombo port, Sri Lanka does not have capabilities of detect it."
China’s “String of Pearls” and India

Therefore, enhancement in Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is a subject that India and Sri Lanka should jointly look into, with Bangladesh and Myanmar acquiring submarines and Australia’s ambitious plan on acquiring nuclear submarines with new alliances with United Kingdoms and the United States of America. Sri Lanka has already shown their interesting in the UDA Framework.

China’s view of Regional Security

When Australia had developed new submarine base next to Perth harbour and Japan supported India to lay underwater listening devices in Andaman and Nicobar Island chain and connected them to Vizag by fiber optic cables and transferred these data to Fusion center in Gurugon, these were some of interesting developments.

"Usage of existing US - Japan “Fish hook” underwater listening devices arrangements and future use of these exciting UDA equipment should be examined carefully."
US ‘Fish Hook’ Undersea Defense Line

I am sure that if Sri Lanka joins India in the Underwater Domain Awareness programs, it will be a win-win situation for both nations.

Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

About Author

He is the former Chief of Defence Staff of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. He has also served as the Commander of the Sri Lankan Navy, Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan Navy and as the Director General of the Sri Lanka Coast Guard.

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