Is Sri Lanka sucked into shadowy war games

Sri Lanka in superpower geopolitical gymnastics

Sunday Times Editorial

Marshal Josip Broz Tito of the former Yugoslavia is credited with the famous quote of yesteryear that Non-Alignment meant “signalling left and turning right”. Or maybe it was the other way around, but the drift was clear.

Today, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), launched in the 1950s and which went on from strength to strength till the mid-1970s in the midst of the Cold War period is no longer relevant. Sri Lanka, one of the pioneers of this movement is now in the forefront of giving the Movement the boot as being “irrelevant” in the modern day, but Movement’s principles may still be relevant.

NAM was essentially an anti-West movement of nations that were emerging from colonial, mainly Western, rule. It was led by countries like Cuba and Iran at times, and today its chairman is Venezuela, a virulently anti-American state.

The super-power equation has also changed in recent years. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became the sole ‘policeman’ of the world, but not for long. Russia (which, inter-alia, kept the nuclear arsenal and military hardware when the Soviet Union was dismantled – and has enormous natural gas and oil resources) has bounced back into contention and superpower status, discarding its Communist policies along the way.

President Maithripala Sirisena visited Moscow this week rekindling diplomatic relations established 60 years ago with a country that is largely ignored when the UNP sits in office.

The new player in the super-power game is China, which is already flexing its military muscle in its immediate neighbourhood, especially in the sea lanes of the South China Sea with a long-term view to extending its influence to the Indian Ocean and beyond to the African seas. Hambantota is, therefore, of key strategic interest to China and its People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN). Those in Sri Lanka negotiating a controversial partnership with China to manage the new harbour in the city have come up against some ‘hard ball’ tactics from the Beijing end and seem weak-kneed in response.

China seems to have worked with an iron fist in a velvet glove, so to speak, showing disinterest in economic investment in Sri Lanka unless it gets its pound of flesh. Having compromised the Sri Lankan Government in the first place by building a port in double-quick time, China is now tying Sri Lanka to a debt crisis it partly created; a debt Sri Lanka hasn’t the money to repay thanks to the folly of the previous Administration.

There still remains some confusion about the proposed Agreement with the Cabinet announcing go-ahead plans and President Sirisena suggesting a sub- committee go into its merits. At least there is one commendable clause that no activities of a “military nature” whether on land, sea or air, in and around the port-city will be permitted other than with the permission of the Government of Sri Lanka.

The fact that the US Pacific Command did some joint military manoeuvres in Hambantota with the nascent Sri Lankan Coast Guard cannot be a mere coincidence. That they were concluded on the eve of the visit of the Chinese Defence Minister to Colombo last week seems a VHF (Very High Frequency) signal to the Chinese not to jump to the conclusion that Hambantota is their turf already.

How much the VHF signals are picked up by Colombo’s political and defence establishments only they will know. The US Defence Department was never in sync with its State Department over the northern separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka. Once, the US DefenceAttache in Colombo defended the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and their conduct in defeating the LTTE at the height of the State Department’s thrust in Geneva to belittle the same Armed Forces and tie the country to a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council calling for a tribunal to probe allegations of war crimes. The straight-talking Defence Attache was sent packing post-haste for his public comments.

As President Sirisena held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, a string of proposed Agreements were announced with China in the wake of the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit. None of them has been made public so far. The defence relationship with China is long-standing given that country’s unstinted help in quashing the northern separatist rebellion in Sri Lanka. The Chinese state-owned enterprises need to be factored in commercial roles in Sri Lanka’s strategic assets (ports, airports, highways, power generation) and Sri Lanka’s OBOR-Maritime Silk Route –parts of which the US calls “the Maritime Super Highway” – weighs heavily in Beijing’s favour.

In the midst of this, Sri Lanka is on the verge of extending its 2007 Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) with the USA. Signed by the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and US Ambassador Robert Blake, it allows America logistic support, supplies and services in Sri Lanka, especially its ports in case they are needed.

In case of any eventuality, such as a super-power clash in the vicinity, Sri Lanka can opt not to take sides and decline these facilities, preventing US military movements.

However, such a step could be considered a ‘hostile act’. Not helping a friend in need is as bad or as good as, helping the enemy. Furthermore, there are murmurs that there are changes contemplated to the ACSA to permit military operations to be launched from Sri Lankan soil. Fuelling these reports is the fact that, in return, the US has given two years grace for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. In the circumstances, it may be prudent to consider an amendment to the Exclusion clause of the Agreement to suspend its applicability in times of war, and call for a consultative mechanism followed by a public statement clarifying the position.

While nothing is official, and this Government is playing things close to its chest, the super-power geo-political gymnastics is sucking Sri Lanka into shadowy war games; China using the ‘debt card’ and the US using the ‘UNHRC card’ to exert pressure on Sri Lanka. The Indian Ocean Peace Zone proposal initiated by Sirmavo Bandaranaike is now sunk into the depths of the ocean but not so the UN Law of the Sea Conference also spearheaded by Sri Lankan Ambassador Shirley Amarasinghe — as China, India, the US and even Japan extend their naval capabilities and presence in these warm — now simmering, soon boiling, waters. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently referred to ‘non-state actors’ also indulging in “maritime terrorism” in the Indian Ocean disrupting economic growth.

With Sri Lanka’s central location in the Indian Ocean, its national security concerns and foreign policy based on geographic location, geo-political realities and geo-economics to replace the fading Non-Aligned Movement, building and balancing military relationships with India, China, the US and Japan will be crucial if Sri Lanka is to remain ‘a friend of all and an enemy of none’. More so, if the Non-Alignment principles are to remain the golden thread that runs through the fabric of its foreign policy.

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