Sri Lanka and great power relations
Posted on September 27th, 2016

By Neville Ladduwahetty Courtesy The Island

The post-conflict period saw the engagement of two Great Powers in Sri Lankan affairs. One was India to some degree and the other was China to a much greater degree. With the new administration coming into force starting January 8, 2015, the United States has made a discernable impact on the affairs of Sri Lanka. Consequently, there are three Great Powers currently pursuing their respective interests in Sri Lanka. It is reported that other powers such as Japan and Singapore are also likely to engage with Sri Lanka (the former in Kandy and the latter in Trincomalee), whether by invitation of the Sri Lankan Government or at the behest of the US as partners in a US grand strategy.

What is interesting about this confluence of forces is that both Japan and Singapore have been longstanding strategic partners of the United States. On the other hand, India is new to the relationship but one that is growing in strength under the Modi administration. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that the US and India recently signed attests to this emerging relationship. Consequently, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, no Government in Sri Lanka would know at any time whether the four powers (US, India, Japan and Singapore) are acting individually or in collusion. What impact their individual actions or their joint collaborations would have on Sri Lanka would be of little or no concern to them.

Since all of them are converging on Sri Lanka, not for the benefit of Sri Lanka but solely for what is best for each of them individually or collectively, how Sri Lanka handles these great power relations is a matter of deep concern because the games that Great Powers play leave in their wake the unintended consequences that countries such Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan are now facing, and Sri Lanka would have to prepare itself to face in the near future. In addition, if Sri Lanka hopes to emerge unscathed by the interplay of these five powers in and around Sri Lanka, it is not only being delusional but also reflects a failure to acknowledge its limitations.


Sri Lanka has come into prominence recently because its strategic location in the Indian Ocean serves the developing interests of Great Powers. This location is the cause for the convergence of these five powers. For China, Sri Lanka is a vital link in its ‘one road one belt’ strategy. For the US and India, Sri Lanka’s location is a vital staging point from which to “pivot to Asia”. President Obama has called the relationship with India “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” (The Washington Post August 31, 2016).

The recently signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement between the US and India is a symbol of the “defining partnership”. This Agreement is essentially to increase strategic and regional cooperation, to deepen military-to-military exchanges, and to expand collaboration on defence technology and innovation. It allows for supplies and services between the two countries’ armed forces. This includes food, water, fuel, spare parts, transportation communication and medical services (Washington Post, Aug.31. 2016). Although the agreement does not obligate either party to carry out joint exercises or for the establishment of bases, the fact remains that joint exercises are being carried out by the US and Indian navies in the South China seas. This is to be expected because curbing China is in the interests of both the US and India.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that includes Japan and Singapore is presented as an innocuous “soft power” trade agreement. However, it has the potential to transform the Partnership into a military alliance to curb China. “Ever-freer trade, and the ever thickening web of rule-based relationships that it creates, was thought of correctly, as a “soft power” complement to American military and political clout. Though mutually advantageous economically, the TPP was most importantly strategically, as an instrument of the Obama administration “pivot” to Asia, in that it would firm up ties among the United States, Japan and – eventually – a block of smaller nations, all of which shared the goal of peacefully curbing Chinese plans to dominate the region according to its authoritarian, mercantilist norms” (Ibid, August 21, 2016).

The irony is that despite these planned strategic efforts to curb Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, the reality that has dawned on the current regime in Sri Lanka is that realistic pragmatism requires Sri Lanka to continue to engage with China if it is to develop its infrastructure based economy — an area where the US and India are not in a position to participate to the degree that China is prepared to commit itself while pursuing its ‘one belt one road’ strategy.


The fact that the US sees Sri Lanka playing a vital role in the furtherance of its geostrategic policies is evident from recent developments in US/Sri Lanka relations. For instance, when the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet USS Blue Ridge arrived in Sri Lanka on March 26 on a five day visit, the US Ambassador Atul Keshap is reported to have stated: “This [naval ship visit] will be first of many to come”. This was followed by the Blue Ridge commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin emphasizing that “we would like to come back and bring more of our Seventh Fleet to Colombo and to Sri Lanka” (, April 8, 2016). The report continues to state that a news release had stated that there had been discussions “about potential bilateral training between the US and Sri Lanka” in a “Pacific Partnership, a joint effort between the United States, foreign militaries, and other organizations to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian and civil assistance” (Ibid).

These remarks reflect the working arrangements of the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) that the former Government signed with the US Government. There is a strong possibility that this would be extended for a further 10 years starting 2017. The US has signed such agreements with many other countries. However, since this agreement was not tabled in the Sri Lankan Parliament, the public is not aware of the degree to which Sri Lanka’s national interests would be compromised by such agreements.

The scope of ASCA could be ascertained from a position paper presented in May 2004, by Colonel Virgil S.L. Williams and Colonel Debbie Little, both of the United States Army War College, titled “United States Security for the Asia-Pacific Region”.

“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 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 logistic 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.

“Again 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 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.”

Based on the US Army War College report and the fact that the US and Sri Lanka have signed the ACSA, Sri Lanka’s neutrality would be severely compromised if at any time the territory of Sri Lanka is used for any military operations involving the US and another State. Notwithstanding this vulnerability a fact that needs to be investigated is whether the ACSA in its current form has the force of law since there is uncertainty as to whether the Agreement in its current form meets constitutional provisions that Agreements with national security implications should have.


For the grand partnership involving India through the Logistics Exchange Memorandum, the US through the ACSA agreement and Japan and Singapore through the TPP to be effective, there is a need to address Constitutional arrangements within Sri Lanka. The statements of the US Ambassador on board the ship USS New Orleans that the US is “working to strengthen our relationship with all of the different facets of the Sri Lanka government”, and partner in the “development of a new Constitution” should be seen from this context (The Island, August 7, 2016 ).

The first step in such a process is the need to install a regime that both India and the US could work with. Such a regime came into being on January 8, 2015 with the installation of a new President, and consolidated by the election of a new Parliament in August 17, 2015. The next step is to weaken the power at the center and empower the provinces to the point of reaching the threshold of a Federal State in substance but not in name – all in the name of reconciliation. For the grand partnership of the five powers and their Great Game, the reward would be to facilitate free access to the provinces.

The need to transform Sri Lanka into a Federal State was recommended by Ambassador Keshap before his current appointment. A Federal arrangement was also recently proposed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Meanwhile the only concern of the Malwatte High Priest is that the scope of Constitutional reforms does not permit separation. In short, a strong possibility is that Constitutional reforms would promote secularization of the Sri Lankan State while retaining the foremost place for Buddhism as the “sweetener”.

Apart from random statements and comments made now and then, the public is clueless as to the shape and form of the forthcoming Constitutional reforms. However, since the Government has the numbers for a 2/3 majority there is a strong possibility that its passage through Parliament would be fast-tracked. This would leave little or no time to educate the Public as to the consequences of the reforms in preparation for the promised referendum. Therefore, the only option open to the larger Sri Lankan nation is to identify the core values on which depend the security and survival of the Sri Lankan nation and the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan State, and engage in a national campaign to reject proposed reforms at the referendum if the Constitutional reforms do not encompass all the identified core values.


As long as the conflict lasted there was no space for great powers to engage in Sri Lanka and exploit its strategic location in their Great Games. Post-conflict Sri Lanka has opened up the space they were looking for. This, coupled with a regime change that was not entirely of Sri Lanka’s own seeking has enabled five powers to engage not only in Sri Lanka’s backyard but internally as well. Of the five, China is engaged in Sri Lanka in pursuit of their ‘one road one belt’ strategy. The remaining four that include the US, India, Japan and Singapore are driven by their common interest of curbing China. How Sri Lanka survives in this geopolitical milieu would test Sri Lanka’s statecraft to the utmost.

One thing that Sri Lanka or for that matter any small country could be certain of is that the interests of the five powers would take precedence over the concerns of Sri Lanka. While part of the blame for the predicament Sri Lanka finds itself in could be attributed to the failures of statecraft and the unbridled compulsions for political power of present and past administrations, the hard fact is that if a small country has what is important to a Great Power the only issue that is on the table for negotiation is how best to survive.

Considering what the great powers have left behind in their quest for great power status in countries such as Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, the hope is that Sri Lanka would not have to face a fate similar to what the islanders of Melos had to face at the hands of mighty Athens. The story goes that the Athenians demanded that Melos submit and pay tribute or be destroyed. The Athenians appealed to the Melians’ sense of pragmatism, citing the overwhelming odds, whereas the Melians appealed to the Athenians’ sense of decency and justice. Since neither side was able to sway the other, the negotiations failed. The Athenians subsequently conquered Melos and mercilessly slaughtered or enslaved its inhabitants. Even if the fate of Sri Lanka may not be as dire as that of Melos, there is a possibility that what the five powers leave behind could very well be a divided Sri Lanka in one form or another.

Such hard choices are not limited only to small countries. For instance, the dilemma facing Australia is that while its economy is tied with China, its security is tied with the US and the West. Commenting on the situation Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop is reported to have stated: “The Chinese have scenarios where Australia could be forced to choose between the US and China. This is generally accompanied by warnings that Australia will need to choose its friends carefully, implying that economic partners may be more important than strategic allies” (The Washington Post, August 24, 2016).

At least Australia has the luxury of making choices. Sri Lanka on the other hand does not have such freedoms particularly for this Government because of its obligations to the Great Powers for being in power. Despite such limitation this administration has realized that realistic pragmatism requires that Sri Lanka continues to engage with China to develop its infrastructure, notwithstanding the condemnations it heaped on the previous administration for its selfsame pragmatism. As for the other four powers who are to engage in Sri Lanka the most that Sri Lanka could hope for is how it could salvage what is economically best for Sri Lanka within the constraints of their presence.

The one glimmer of hope for Sri Lanka is the Constitutional provision that requires Constitutional reforms to be subjected to a referendum. This opportunity should be seized and taken advantage of by the larger Sri Lankan nation, to develop a set of core values that embody what it takes to preserve and protect its security, its survival and the integrity of the State, all within a strong center, and insist that they are incorporated in the Constitutional reforms, and if they are not, to reject the reforms at the referendum. How the larger Sri Lankan nation uses this last call to engage in a national campaign to protect its national and security interests would determine the fate of Sri Lanka and its People.

6 Responses to “Sri Lanka and great power relations”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Our many thanks to Mr Ladduwahetty for clarification of issues facing Sri Lanka.

    This article ought to be translated and published in Sinhala, & Tamil too.

    We do hope that a Referendum is held and the issues that have arisen placed before the Public in a clear and concise way, so that they can decide how to best protect their country and their lives.
    That is the Democratic Way.
    Any other method would Democracy Denied to ALL Lankans.

    We hope ALL the leaders rise to the occasion to Protect Sri Lanka.
    And, please, we want Paper Ballots, and certainly not Ranil’s election machines.

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    Here is an interesting piece of news:

    INDIA signed 10 border Agreements with China in 2013. INDIA knows how to protect herself. Do Lankans know how to do the same ?

  3. nilwala Says:

    Neville Ladduwahetty has clearly seen the importance of the Referendum which remains the last stand of a truly Democratic Process in Sri Lanka…otherwise, from what is being revealed of the new Constitution, this country is heading for the same “RIGGED” politics that has dominated the criticisms of the US political party system by those candidates who have had the courage to stand up against the Establishment…these include Green Party candidate Dr.Jill Stein, Senator Bernie Sanders, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson etc.

    Sri Lanka owes the retention of the Referendum as the last vestige of true Democracy to President JR Jayewardene who saw the need to include it in the 1978 Constitution. His wisdom may be the single saving grace that could prevent the Sri Lankan nation from being split up by interested persons in his own UNP party and others driven by greed for power and selfish interests with little concern for the national, such as Sovereignty, National Security and Territorial Integrity. A determination to make a Minority of the Majority Sinhala Buddhist people whose role in the creation of the island’s civilisation has been endorsed by recorded history seems to underlie this otherwise unnecessary exercise of drafting a New Constitution, where some amendments could have sufficed.
    Hopefully the nation will be on full alert to protect the island in this last stand of a Sovereign people against the effort of some Great Powers in connivance with some local political leaders to have the country sold out once more.

  4. aloy Says:

    ‘Best plans of mice and men often goes awry’. The northerners planned and fought for 30 long years. But when pushed to the wall Sinhalese got together and finished it off in Nandicadal.
    To get rid of a Tamil King our chieftains in Kandy had to handed over the country to the Brits, but they had other ideas. Japanese broke the back of their empire and as a result we regained our country back. No condition in the world is permanent. We were lucky to survive for over 2500 years. To dislodge another king (somewhat alien one to my mind) Sinhalese had to make a choice. If those seeking to take the country on a path of no return think that they have been successful, I say, they are sadly mistaken.
    A picture they say is worth thousand words; one taken at the wedding of son of Dudley Sirisena with MS, RW and GR speak volumes. To my mind, expression on the face of RW says it all.

  5. S.Gonsal Says:

    What Aloy says is absolutely true . I just googled “wedding of son of Dudley Sirisena “. They are all the same, good friends. Poor youth get killed for them to become filthy rich.
    BTW Ravi Karunanayaka is the current Paga Raja. Getting richer day by day. Mahendran family became billionaires overnight , share going to “clean man” Ranil.
    How did Gamarala send Son to UK to do degrees ?

  6. Dilrook Says:

    In 1990, USA and allies accounted for 64% of the world economy. By 2020 this would have reduced to 39%. That is a huge drop and holds hope for most people (over 80% of people live outside these countries). Things are changing. USA will be unable to yield so much influence in a few years. If it entangles in a war with Russia, its collapse will accelerate. Between the two idiots, whoever win the US presidential election, the nation will be doomed. Such is the low quality of leaders it has fallen into.

    Hindustan has always been Sri Lanka’s (and the region’s) enemy number one and now it has worsened its position by realigning its policy towards USA. Alarmed by India’s shift, Russia started selling previously withheld weapons to China and Pakistan. Russia started joint military exercises with China and Pakistan – unthinkable 20 years ago. As the new lackey of USA, India will assert colonialism towards Sri Lanka and others even more. It should be remembered that India supported Tamil armed groups against Sri Lanka when it was a lackey of the SU.

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