By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
US Vice President Mike Pence recently addressed a gathering of distinguished personalities at the Hudson Institute, a Washington based Think Tank. His remarks were related to the Trump administration’s policy toward China.
Pence accused China of using “debt diplomacy to expand its influence today.” The example used to drive home his point was; “Just ask Sri Lanka, which took on massive debts to let Chinese state companies build a port with questionable commercial value. Two years ago, that country could no longer afford its payments – so Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands. It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.”
The US Vice President is a member of America’s National Security Council. It is the US President’s principal forum to appraise national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials. Therefore, his comments cannot be dismissed as uninformed.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe rejected Pence’s assertion during his address at the Oxford Student’s Union as “imaginary.” He stated it was a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and its security arrangements entrusted to the Sri Lankan Navy. He did not state, the debt to equity deal was a GoSL initiative and not due to Chinese pressure.
Considering US concerns over one of Sri Lanka’s key ports becoming a Chinese military installation, it would be worthwhile to examine to what extent, all ports and airports in the island had become accessible to US armed forces for use in times of crisis as a result of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA).
The first proposal by the US made to UNP government in 2002 did not materialize due to Indian objections. The agreement was eventually signed between USA and GoSL on March 5, 2007, during the Rajapaksa administration after overcoming Indian objections.
ACSA is perhaps best explained in a position paper titled ‘United States Security Strategy for the Asia-Pacific Region’ to the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania by two US military officers in 2004 which states;
“Agreements (ACSA) formally establish terms and conditions for exchange of logistics support for joint training and exercises, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian and disaster relief operations and contingency operations. As the United States reduce its forces in the region, ally support will become increasingly important. Negotiating more ACSAs with host nations can enhance operational readiness and reduce the logistics tail. In addition, ACSAs allow visiting military forces to receive logistic support in the form of supplies; petroleum; transportation; base operations support; use of repair and maintenance facilities; and access to airfields and ports.”
“In addition to host nation supplies and services, ACSA can give U.S. access to basing and infrastructure necessary for force projection in and through the USPACOM (US Pacific Command) area of responsibility.
“ACSAs proved critical during Desert Storm/Desert Shield when a significant percentage of strategic aircraft, combat aircraft, and naval vessels were staged from or through USPACOM’s area of responsibility (US Pacific Command) in support of operations. Agreements of this nature continue to prove critical as countries in the USPACOM area of responsibility currently provide access in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraq Freedom.”
USPACOM was renamed US Indo-Pacific Command or USINDOPACOM in May 2018. Sri Lanka falls under the area of responsibility of USINDOPACOM.
Potential examples of ACSA in action are illustrated in the appended slide from a PowerPoint Presentation for USAFRICOM Personnel (US Africa Command) available here.
Even though the agreement allows the United States and Sri Lanka to transfer and exchange logistical supplies, support, and refueling services during peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations, and joint exercises, it forbids the exchange of lethal weapons and ammunition, a particular clause relevant to ACSA with Sri Lanka. Such a provision significantly diminished the value of the agreement for a country embroiled in an internal armed conflict and with no armament industry of its own. As per the illustrated slide, Host Nation may receive ammunition on a replacement basis.
Sri Lanka’s armed forces play no overseas role other than UN Peace Keeping missions. Hence, they have no requirements for logistical support and refueling facilities. The benefits of the agreement are mostly from training.
On the other hand, the agreement is ideal for the world’s only superpower and largest armaments manufacturer. It fulfills US requirements in a conflict situation within the USINDOPACOM region concerning logistics supplies, support, and refueling services. Sri Lanka would also provide access to all its ports and airports for US air and naval craft.
Many support missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are known to have originated from this region.
The agreement signed during the internal armed conflict was not entirely devoid of benefits, and Sri Lanka did receive invaluable assistance primarily in the sphere of intelligence. That said, it was the type of caveat on lethal weapons and ammunition which drove Sri Lanka into the arms of the Chinese to procure such requirements.
An Indian writer on defense and security matters Muralidhar Reddy commented; “For all the sophistry and spin by the Americans, the ACSA is a military deal and, on the face of it, is loaded in Washington’s favor. For the U.S., it is as good as acquiring a base in the Indian Ocean and at little or no cost. In the immediate context, the ACSA suits the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government as an advertisement of its influence with the superpower in general and in its fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in particular.
The position paper by two US military officers in 2004 states “As the United States reduce its forces in the region, ally support will become increasingly important.” Press Release issued by US Embassy in Colombo during the visit by David Bohigian, Executive Vice President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and other U.S. government officials from October 3 to 5 stated among other things; “OPIC has a long history of partnering with allies in the region.”
Sri Lanka has wittingly or unwittingly become an American ally, a status not claimed by the Chinese despite all the military support including lethal weapons given when required.
The 2007 ACSA agreement expired on March 05, 2017. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, responding to a question raised in Parliament in June 2017 stated; “extending the agreement with the U.S. will be utmost importance given the global situation today.” Nevertheless, no announcement of the actual renewal has been made to date.
Despite the absence of a formal agreement, joint military exercises between Sri Lanka and US forces continue. Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) was held off Trincomalee in October 2017. Several US warships have called in Colombo including the Nimitz carrier strike group led by nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz that anchored in Colombo in October 2017. A US House Armed Forces Committee visited Colombo in May 2018. “We are in Sri Lanka to find out what can be done to strengthen cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries,” they said. A Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercise was held in Trincomalee from July 2018. USS Anchorage joined the Sri Lankan naval ship ‘SLNS Suranimila’ for sea exercises in the Indian Ocean, in August 2018,
Such military activities did not take place between March 2007 when ACSA was signed and January 2015 when the Rajapaksa administration was voted out of office.
In comparison, Sri Lanka has not entered into any kind of agreement similar to ACSA with China. Their nuclear submarines involved in anti-piracy missions have been denied bunkering facilities in Colombo since May 2015 because of Indian concerns. Phase One of the only known joint military exercises between armed forces of the two countries, Silk Road Cooperation 2015 took place in Guangzhou in March 2015 and Phase Two in Sri Lanka in July 2015.
Despite mega investments in Asia and Africa, there are no known instances of Chinese interference in their internal affairs.
Under the circumstances, US fears of a Chinese military presence in Hambantota, as echoed by Vice President Pence is unfounded.
On the other hand, what is of immense concern is the increased presence of the US military in the seas and shores of Sri Lanka.