19 September, 2019

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Making Best Use Of Sri Lanka’s Strategic Location 

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

There is increased competition between the global big powers in the India Ocean. The four main protagonists are India, the United States, China and Japan. The challenge to Sri Lanka is how to maximize the benefit to itself from this situation without being overwhelmed by pressures that may be brought to bear upon it. Sri Lanka can become a beneficiary of competition as it has in the case of the USD 480 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation of the United States. However, each of the global powers will see a threat to itself if Sri Lanka were to favour one over the other. The threat perception will grow if Sri Lanka were to permit any one of them a foothold within the country, especially in military terms, that is significantly bigger than what they already have.

Each of the four big powers mentioned above has a foothold within Sri Lanka. In the past four years Sri Lanka has been following a multi-aligned foreign policy which builds upon the non-aligned foreign policy of the 1970s articulated by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike for which it gained international stature. It was in 1976 that Sri Lanka hosted the non-aligned summit meeting which saw nearly heads of state come to the country where they gathered at the Bandaranaike International Memorial Conference Hall that was donated for the purpose by China. In the context of today’s big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s latest policy direction has been articulated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a manner so as to enable Sri Lanka to navigate the turbulent waters skillfully.

Speaking at the 4th Indian Ocean Conference on “Securing the Indian Ocean Region: Traditional and Non-Traditional Challenges”, held in the Maldive Island, on 3 – 4 September 2019, the Prime Minister noted, “The Indian Ocean is tipped to become a theatre of contemporary global geopolitics with India and China on the one hand and the US and China on the other, competing for space. The competition is helping not only to drive a build-up of naval presence, but it is also spilling over into securing vital strategic maritime routes. This growing geo-strategic competition amongst established and emerging powers in the Indo – Pacific has far-reaching consequences.” An aspect of this competition was seen in September 2014 when a Chinese warship and submarine came into the Chinese-controlled section of Colombo port during Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe’s visit to Sri Lanka.

Chinese-Built Ports

The Prime Minister also observed that “With many of the powers looking to actively maintain or extend their control or influence, it is likely that the tension at sea will rise. It is vital that all maritime players realize the risks inherent in willfully destabilizing the maritime order, as there are binding economic interests that necessitate a greater degree of restraint and cooperation. For China, securing sea lanes has become a preoccupation with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – with its intent of building roads, pipelines and ports in friendly countries around the Indian Ocean. For India, China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean is a source of concern, especially in the South Asian neighborhood.”

The issue of China’s expanded presence within Sri Lanka has become a source of concern to the three other big powers and has been commented on internationally. This has been mainly due to the way in which Sri Lanka was induced to part with its land and property within the country, both in relation to the the Chinese-built Hambantota Port and to the Chinese-built Port City regained from the sea which is strategically located adjacent to Colombo Port. In both these cases, high cost investments with the prospect of long term gains were made which Sri Lanka could not afford to repay in the short term resulting in a Chinese take-over on 99 year leases. The Chinese presence is now a fact on the ground which will not go away.

The presence of China in two of the key ports of Sri Lanka is a matter of concern to the other three big powers. As Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour, India has reason to be unhappy with the Chinese presence at its southernmost tip while its armed forces face off against the Chinese in the context of disputed territory in its northern parts. The Indian concern is about Sri Lankan ports being part of a network of ports, including Chinese-built ones in Myanmar and Pakistan, to encircle India and choke its access to the Indian Ocean. Japan too would not want to see these “string of pearls,” as the series of Chinese-built ports are known, being used some time in the future to restrict freedom of the seas for movements of fuel and goods.

Reciprocity Demand

If carefully and tactfully handled, there are significant economic benefits that could flow to Sri Lanka due to its strategic geopolitical location. Both India and Japan have invested in Colombo and Trincomalee ports to ensure their presence on the ground. Under a trilateral model, Japan has ensured that India remains a key partner in its activities in the Indian Ocean. India has been given a lease agreement for 50 years, extendable up to a maximum of 99 years, for the development of upper tank oil farm in Trincomalee, which is where Sri Lanka has a strategic naval harbour. This will include projects to develop a port, petroleum refinery and other industries. Japan has provided loans to Sri Lanka to expand the Trincomalee port into a much bigger trade port. In addition, Sri Lanka is entering into partnership with India and Japan to develop a deep-sea container terminal with 49 percent foreign ownership next to a Chinese-run container terminal in Colombo harbor which has 85 percent Chinese ownership.

Speaking at the graduation of the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training institute last month, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka’s focus is not to get into a military alliance with anyone but to go for economic, cultural and political cooperation with every country. The prime minister said “Be it India, China, Japan, European Union, US, Australia or Russia, we have made the Indian Ocean our key strategy. We are thinking of how we could leverage ourselves. We have to remember that the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean means there will be no military alliance with anyone but economic, cultural and political cooperation with everyone. We also have to be mindful of the mutual security interests of India and Sri Lanka.”

There is controversy today about both the Millennium Challenge Fund grant and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which is about an expansion of an existing agreement, first signed in 1995, with the United States regarding the ease of entry of US military personnel into Sri Lanka. The US economic assistance is in the form of a large grant, which is advantageous to Sri Lanka. The question, however, is whether Sri Lanka should enter into a fresh agreement that increases the range of military-related obligations and services provided. There are three other countries that will be watching. China now sees itself as a global power on the scale of the United States. If China were to demand reciprocity from Sri Lanka, a major dilemma would arise because India would surely object to a Chinese military presence. The African proverb that when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled is a warning to Sri Lanka.

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Latest comments

  • 7
    0

    Jehan Perera great! Finally, you have woken up to the reality of geopolitics in the Indian Ocean, 6 months after the Hollywood style Easter carnage staged by US Doctor Octopus of Marvel entertainment fame!
    Sri Lanka, the ‘beneficiary’ of Super-power State sponsored ECONOMIC TERRORISM on Easter Sunday ,after which the MCC came along with the fake “carrot” of a paltry 480 billion USD to land grab, ocean grab and asset strip the country does not need a penny from Trumpland or ALina Nitwis or the blond bimbo running an MCC office in Colombo with CIA Nilan,. Rather, they should be held accountable with their Saudi partners for the Easter carnage.
    Now again economic terrorism against Sri Lanka is on going to force signing of MCC with the Rupee being crashed by US-EU sovereign bond traders.. although World Bank has said Sri Lanka is an upper middle income country in a classic LIE contrary to all empirical data that show the jobs were lost and the economy shrank after the US sponsored ECONOMIC TERRORISM and attacks on Chinese investments in Sri Lanka.
    Long live miracle of modayas!

    • 7
      2

      According to the US Govt. Accoutability office “Hybrid warfare tactics consist of the blending of conventional, unconventional, and irregular approaches to warfare across the full spectrum of conflict.
      US puppet BOndscame Ranil must be held accountable for the fact that Sri Lanka was subject to (maritime) hybrid warfare on Easter Sunday when 4 Chinese ocean scientists were also killed in as they were to undertake marine exploration in corporation with Sri Lankan reserarch scientists in the Eastern Seas of Sri Lanka and near Trincomalee In addition to all who died in the attack on the Economy in the sea front Hotels and churches
      This month US puppet BOndscam Ranil and his Muslim MP Kabir Hashim gave the US and its allies France and Norway contracts for sea bed mapping and fake oil and gas exploration in the Eastern seas off Trincomalee. The US Cold War in the Indian Ocean to sink the rise of Asian economies and China started in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday with maritime hybrid warfare.
      Mulsim Ministers, Hizbulla, Bahtudeen, Mustaphar and Hashim are all being used as cats paw for the US military bases project in Sri Lanka and this will cause great harm to the Muslim community already under attack from SInhala Buddhist nationalists.

      • 7
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        Also, there is no oil and gas in the Eastern seas of Sri Lanka, but there are very valuable rare earth elements (REE) in the Cauvery Basin some of which are visible in the Pullmodia mineral sands and of course US wants Trincomalee habour for its war machine Hub in the Indian Ocean.
        So, US and its French and Norwegian friends are after the Submarine data cables (UDC) in Sri Lanka’s sea bed for its Data mining and tapping. US Bell Eco project is NOT for oil gas mining to make Sri Lanka rich. That is the Fake news.
        US Bell is a telecom company to tap submarine data cables that surround Sri Lanka from which you can bring down the global internet! US should be banned from Sri Lankas EEZ – exclusive Economic Zone in the ocean and embassy shut down. But they are building a massive military base right on Galle Road which the mysterious bags of bombs that SL customs cannot search are taken!

        • 5
          1

          Well, well Dr. JP has become a geopolitical strategist – singing for his supper from MCC?!
          However, the Provincial Councils (PC) system which was set up to empower minorities has been destroyed by MCC and US puppet Bondscam Ranil and his Saudi funded Muslim network– Mustapha, Bathudeen and Hizbullah.
          US puppet Bond Ranil who claims to be the savior of minorities, with the “advice” of Millennium Challenge Corpoation (MCC), fake development experts, has worked to ensure that MCC could grab provincial lands while bi-passing the PCs so that US military bases and servicing facilities could be set up in the Mannar- Willpattu, northern and eastern provinces.
          This is why the Provincial Council system has been destroyed — to enable the US land grab for its military bases. Dr. JP must open his eyes and focus on this MMC scam.
          Civil society must move the courts on urgently holding PC elections as the MCC land grab project is on going and PCs must block this at they did when they rejected the MCC Development Special Provisions Bill in 2016 and the Divineguma Super Ministry Bill of US citizen Basil Rajapassa and MCC to land grab and destroy agriculture during the previous regime as well.

  • 1
    1

    Sri Lanka needs China and America on board because India is suffering from ‘super power mania’. India is already intimidating Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. And one day, Indian will anex all 3 with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

  • 2
    2

    Instead of making the best use of Sri Lanka’s strategic location, what our pundits want to do is just only brag about it. It is like keeping a girl at home without giving in marriage, because she is too beautiful.

  • 2
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    I wonder how the process playing out now is different from how the Europeans colonized Sri Lanka (and South Asia) in the 16/17th centuries. The British wrested a trade “concession” in Madras called Fort Thomas and then expanded to take over the administration of the region, and eventually kicked out the rulers of the North Indian kingdoms to take over the whole country.

    It was the same story in Sri Lanka, where the Portugese and Dutch took over our ports in the guise of trade posts, and eventually controlled our lives through taxation, restricting access to the ocean resources and massive efforts to change culture and identity of our people.

    The British went further in land and destroyed virgin forests and uprooted the mountain people to establish coffee and later tea plantations, destroying the relative self-sufficiency of an agrarian people. From there they helped create, exacerbate and encourage racial and ethnic resentment by privileging one group of people over another.

    How will these new colonizers control our lives? How much power do we have to resist them or influence the path? How much does our destiny rely on all of the ethno-religious groups speaking with one voice against these powers using our resources to their benefit, with minimal improvement in the quality of life of the majority of our citizens?

    How intelligent and strategic and far-sighted are our leaders, to face the threat of re-colonization?

  • 4
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    Jehan

    You are an intelligent individual ( or I hope) and there is no competion and if there is any that will be with the blessing of India. Sri Lnka is only 22 mies away from India and if Indias security is threatened Modi will swim the Palk Straight. No foreign Power can set foot on Sri Lanka without Indian Agreement it is as simple as that. Why do you think Trico Harbour has stayed Idle for 71 years and that is because of Indias opposition. Sri Lanka has no say in this. MR has learnt that to Sri Lankas cost with the Submarines issue from China

  • 0
    0

    “The US economic assistance is in the form of a large grant, which is advantageous to Sri Lanka. The question, however, is whether Sri Lanka should enter into a fresh agreement that increases the range of military-related obligations and services provided. “

    what jehan here seems to be saying is the two are linked.we get the grant to improve our transport infrastructure only if we sign the SOFA agreement.Lets increase the grant if that is so.half a billion USD is peanuts for the USA.Also they will give the grant and take back most of it by forcing us to use the suppliers of their choice.Normally when aid is given 80% of it is siphoned back to the country giving the aid.Also we must reduce the military related obligations and services provided through SOFA.Always play the game hard with foreigners,but they usually get what they want by cultivating relationships with powerful people in the country and the people are sold out to them.

  • 1
    0

    The information available regarding SOFA and Millennium Funds is smoke and mirrors. These must be clearly explained.
    Sri Lanka’s strategic location is valued extremely highly in this article. It is not the case. If we consider the countries in the vicinity of Sri Lanka, viz India, Maldives, Bangladesh and Pakistan separately, we can see why value of Sri Lanka’s strategic location is not as important as it used to be. In India’s foreign aid budget this year Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Myanmar and Afghanistan receive much more than that received by Sri Lanka. China spent more than 60 billion in Pakistan to develop the roadway to Pakistan’s Gwadar port. Chinese companies are manufacturing telecom equipments in a big way in India and their two way trade now exceeds 60 billion US dollars. They do not want to antagonise each other. India and Japan are bosom friends now with strong military connection; most importantly naval connection. US has naval facilities in Diego Garcia. They only need Sri Lankan for ancillary needs. Russia is in the wings expanding its armed forces and still the second most powerful military force in the world. All indications are that they will not do anything against India. India also has a powerful navy in Asia, second only to China.
    For the above reasons Sri Lanka is not as important as before. It must tread carefully when it deals with the the above countries. Bravado and chest beating won’t help.

    • 0
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      shan
      you forget that sri lanka can become an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the indian ocean at the closest point to the vital shipping lanes that bring oil tankers from the ME.

      • 0
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        Thank you Shankar. There are 20 million people in Sri Lanka where as Diego Garcia has no one. Human casualty is also a factor in the calculation of civilised countries. Besides all the powerful countries have powerful virtually unsinkable aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and other powerful naval ships. These countries have powerful planes, radars and missiles etc.
        In the modern era Palk Strait is narrow enough to enable India to bring Sri Lanka under its military control very quickly if necessary. I believe that at the moment powerful countries including China would like to have India as a friend. This is also a reason for the reduced strategic value of Sri Lanka.
        At the moment all the powerful countries want to have friendly relationship with India reducing the strategic importance of Sri Lanka.

        • 0
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          shan

          diego garcia is 1785 km away from colombo.It is far too late for planes and ships to blockade the shipping lanes in the indian ocean from diego garcia if another country gets there first from colombo.

          Aircraft carriers are sitting ducks and if they sink the planes that have gone out will not have anywhere to land as they run out of fuel and will have to ditch into the ocean,whereas in a unsinkable aircraft carrier like sri lanka the situation is different and the planes can land somewhere in the country as they run out of fuel.As for the casualties you mention most of the action if any will be at sea.

          India cannot bring sri lanka under its military control quickly as you mention,if there is a foreign country with a strong military presence already on the island.

          You say china will like to have india as a friend.there are no permanent friendships between countries,only permanent interests.though the trade you mention could be a permanent interest ,it will be superseded by security concerns.if china feels that oil supplies to it are at risk or india feels choked by china’s string of pearls policy of surrounding india with ports controlled by it.

          countries wanting friendly relations with india is a separate issue from the shipping lines in the indian ocean where sri lanka is the closest point to them.

  • 2
    0

    No doubt SL has a value in her location. The value can be increased thousands fold if we had ‘Law&Order’. Our best weapon will be to restore this and powers will compete for attention
    Right now our Culture of corruption/nepotism/impunity is being exploited.

    • 1
      0

      K.Pillai:- “No doubt SL has a value in her location”
      This is why we have a diverse Population!
      Let us Keep that Value, and Make Use of it to Develop Our Country!

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