INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AND YAHAPALANA Part 4
Posted on November 17th, 2017

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Yahapalana eagerly compared its foreign policy with that of former President Rajapaksa. ‘During the last regime the Lankan mouse from its peephole was roaring at India Instead of fostering relations with India’, said Don Manu. India slammed the door in their face, similarly America, England, France, Germany and the rest of the powerful western world. Due to its anti Indian and anti west stance the island had no friend in the world except the       region’s superpower aspirant China, continued Don Manu. Lanka isolated and alone, with no friends, turned to China and gave it access to areas of strategic value. Rajapakse turned to China not because of a good foreign policy but because political survival depended on it, concluded Don Manu.

Foreign relations have been re-balanced from a ‘China weighted’ one, to one that has restored relations with India and the West, said Yahapalana. Under Rajapakse there was too much reliance on China, ignoring traditional friends like US, Europe and India. Now old friendships are restored and there is less reliance on China, said Razeen Sally.  Unlike the previous regime, the current regime has sought to balance its policy between India and China, giving India a stake in Hambantota airport, Colombo port project and a key expressway, besides preventing Chinese submarines in Sri Lankan waters , observed India’s Foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar.

Unfortunately, neither India nor America have a good public image in Sri Lanka today. The public see modern India as the enemy. Direct Indian involvement in operating Sri Lanka’s second international airport  at Mattala would be 100 times more dangerous than leasing Hambantota port to China said one critic. US is no longer considered a rich, happy, perfect country after the California forest fires and the shootings at Las Vegas and Texas.

Sri Lanka must learn to balance international relations, Sri Lanka cannot become a military facility of any one country,  Sri Lanka can’t play one country off against another,   said Jayanath Colombage. Dayan Jayatilleke warned, ‘Sinhala fundamentalists’ count on the rise of China as a counterweight to India as well as the combined weight of India and the US. India and US are the regional superpower and the world’s sole superpower, though admittedly it is in slow, relative decline. We are an easily blockaded, small island on India’s doorstep and unlike Pakistan, we have no land route to China.

Building and balancing military relationships with India, China,  US and Japan will be crucial if Sri Lanka is to remain ‘a friend of all and an enemy of none’, warned critics. It may be best therefore for Sri Lanka to take middle ground at this moment. We are located at a meeting point between the east and west in the Indian Ocean and our location is of significant geo strategic importance, said analysts. However, no analyst has pointed out that China is a rising power, USA is a declining power. It is ridiculous for Sri Lanka to link with a declining power instead of the  rising one.

The Yahapalana tilt to US has led to a couple of   issues at the UN. Sri Lanka shocked the Arab and Islamic world by not supporting a pro Palestine, at UNESCO, said critics.  They were referring to the Occupied Palestine Resolution passed in October 2016. The resolution condemned Israel for aggression against the Palestinian people. Sri Lanka abstained.

Island ran a headline, ‘Mangala denies being US lackey.’ Mangala Samaraweera, then Foreign minister, said that Sri Lanka’s stand on the Palestine issue was that both Israel and Palestine should find a negotiated settlement and Sri Lanka had not voted against Palestine, he said. Sri Lanka abstained because Sri Lanka had reservations about the text and not because Sri Lanka had changed its mind about Palestine, explained the Ministry of Foreign affairs. India had also opted to abstain, along with many other countries. ‘We have supported Palestine’s entry as observer state to the UN. Our position on Palestine has not shifted at all’.

‘Now it has refused to vote against a resolution on Iran in UN General Assembly’, howled critics in November 2016. Iran has stood by Sri Lanka with military aid and credit lines to buy oil and carry out development projects. Iran stood by Sri Lanka in Human Rights Council.  Sri Lanka position on the vote is eagerly watched. Sri Lanka abstained in this election too.

Sri Lanka is a small nation, surrounded by much larger countries, all with economic and military power, greater than its own. It is essential that Sri Lanka maintain mutually beneficial economic and political ties with them, but Sri Lanka has to take utmost care to ensure that it does not enter in to asymmetrical agreements of long duration with a super power. The damage to national interests will be irreparable, said Anura Gunasekera.

Once entrenched, the super power will not relinquish its hold, it will only ask for more. National interest will not be a consideration in their calculations. We have to bear in mind at all times that we do not have the wherewithal, to exert economic, political or military force to evict an undesirable occupant from our soil, warned Anura Gunasekera

The main military attraction in Sri Lanka is of course, Trincomalee. Trincomalee is one of Sri Lanka most valuable assets. Trincomalee is one of the largest deep water natural harbors in the world. It consists of approximately 2000 hectares of sea and 6000 hectares of land.  The entrance is four miles wide and five across.  The inner harbor which lies to the north covers about 12 sq miles and is securely enclosed by rocks and small islets.

Trincomalee harbor is very strategically located.  Also Trincomalee is a sheltered port unaffected by seasonal weather changes and tidal waves. A remarkable feature of this harbor is its great depth. It has an average depth of 25 m, which could accommodate even mega container ships carrying over 18,000 TEUs that requires a draught of 19 meters.

It has a submarine canyon with walls as high as 1350 cms and a depth of over 3350 meters.  This canyon is one of the 20 largest submarine canyons in the world. Trincomalee is therefore   ideal for nuclear submarines.  They can dive low in the inner harbor and effectively avoid radar and sonar detection. Therefore any power that controls Trincomalee   had a great advantage from naval and strategic perspective.

This has political implications. A fleet so protected is in a position to dominate the Bay of Bengal and the eastern Indian Ocean and   the foreign power owning such a fleet was at an advantage. Currently, it has been observed that Trincomalee can comfortably accommodate the Seventh fleet of the US Navy.

US does not hide its desire to get into Trincomalee. US is working towards establishing  its bases in Trincomalee for its Seventh Fleet and was making Sri Lanka military vacate strategically important locations in the port,  said a news report of 2015.    Accordingly, Sampur navy base was vacated in 2015. The entire camp was removed and its 400 sailors sent to Boossa navy camp in Galle. The reason given was that Sampur was going to be used for resettlement.

The government has decided to allow Trincomalee to be a US base for the 7th fleet said a news report in 2016. Speculation is rife that the Trincomalee Harbor, a portion of the Colombo Port and many other key resources will go to India and the US, said Sumanasiri Liyanage in January 2017.  In May 2017 Vitarana said that an American Naval camp is to be set up in Trincomalee, with the Trincomalee harbor as the focal point. A bilateral agreement has been signed secretly to establish an American naval camp in Trincomalee.

Several international conferences on the Indian Ocean have taken place  in Colombo and elsewhere. Yahapalana is going to lead in this as well. We will continue to take a leading role, in bringing our partners in the Indian Ocean together to deliberate on issues of importance to all of us, said Prime Minister Ranil  Wickremesinghe at the opening of the 2nd Indian Ocean Conference.

Pathfinder Foundation, Carnegie India together with Vivekananda International Foundation in India conducted a conference in Colombo discuss six major areas of connectivity in the Indian Ocean.  Pathfinder Foundation ‘s Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives  and National Maritime Foundation  based in New Delhi, India signed a Memorandum of Understanding to embark on research into maritime strategy and security studies in the Indian Ocean. Their first bilateral conference in February 2018 will be on maritime security.

Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) held a dialogue on the theme ‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy: Choices in a Changing World’  at this Dialogue, Mahdev Mohan, Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore, observed that Sri Lanka’s attempt to craft a dual identity as the centre of the Indian Ocean and a gateway to India would give it a competitive advantage. This was ‘a space that nobody had had the chance to exploit just yet.’

I end this series with a survey of Yahapalana utterances on the politics of the Bay of Bengal. These utterances range from the ridiculous to statements that show that Yahapalana is planning to lead Sri Lanka into war.

Sri Lanka is a small island right in the middle of a large world. For thousands of years we have benefitted from being located strategically. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten this competitive advantage of the location. Our vision is to reclaim that mantle of international connectivity, said Prime Minister Ranil  Wickremesinghe

The Government of Sri Lanka has a clear vision of what it wants Sri Lanka to be said Minister Harsha de Silva in January 2017, we would like to position Sri Lanka at the centre of the Indian Ocean.  Sri Lanka is going to be the Hub of the Indian Ocean said  Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in May 2017. Sri Lanka will be the Hub in the Indian Ocean announced Yahapalana in September 2017.

The notion of Sri Lanka as  a Hub is not as absurd as  I had  initially thought. Jayanath Colombage  made out the following case for Sri Lanka . Colombage  pointed out  that Sri Lanka has a  unique advantage in its geographical location.  Sri Lanka is located in the centre of the Indian Ocean, almost equal distance from the eastern and western Indian Ocean littorals. Sri Lanka is located just 12 nautical miles from the busiest east-west shipping route across this ocean, linking Europe, Americas, Far East, Middle East and Asia, which is considered a key shipping lane in the 21st century. .Further, Sri Lanka is blessed with deep-water ports and deep navigable waters around the country and especially along the approaches to major ports.. Port of Colombo is the only port in the region which is capable of docking and handling even the latest version of mega container ships.

Sri Lanka is well connected digitally to the world and possesses an advanced telecommunication network. Sri Lanka is also enjoying well connected aviation network linking major cities in the region and beyond.  Sri Lanka maintains a balanced and equi-distance diplomatic posture and is considered to be a friendly country by many countries. . Sri Lanka is the only country in this region, where all states arrive without any restrictions, be they  Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis or Americans. Sri Lanka has already taken leadership roles in the India Ocean with Indian Ocean as Zone of Peace initiative,  its role in creating SAARC and creating of UNCLOS. Sri Lanka has presently taken the initiative to discuss a Code of Conduct for Major Maritime Users in the Indian Ocean region and a new Indian Ocean Order.  

Therefore  the   ‘Hub’ possibility  is based on Sri Lanka’s strategic location as well as the availability of ports on all coasts and two international airports with good land connectivity. Colombo will also be a center for offshore finance and business, said Yahapalana . Once it becomes a Hub, Sri Lanka future  will depend on how well the country leverages its geo strategic location as an Indian Ocean hub, said analysts.

‘We don’t want the Indian Ocean to become a militarized arena for great power rivalry. We don’t see here maritime and territorial disputes like those in the South China Sea, said Frances Adamson, Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia. However, a maritime build up is taking place in the Indian Ocean, which includes  nuclear capability. India , USA and China are increasing their naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Very soon, countries will compete for naval power and control of the sea in the Bay of Bengal.  Naval power will play an important role in the region said analysts.

The US is interested in creating partnerships in the Indian Ocean. The U.S.-India-Japan ‘Malabar’ naval exercise in July 2017 was ‘our largest and most complex to date, involving over ten thousand personnel’ said US.  US is also interested in building the coast guard capacity of ‘our Indian Ocean partners’. US says it wants to see greater naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean. US wants to Improve community policing, aviation security, and forensics analysis in the region as well,    in order to combat terrorism, transnational crime, human trafficking and illicit drugs. There is no mention of war.  Analysts however say that US will not be fighting in the Indian Ocean, the fighting will be done on behalf of USA by its partner states.

Maritime security in the Bay of Bengal is now a matter of much concern, said analysts. No single power or coalition will be able to rule on their own in the Indian Ocean. South Asia will need to build military alliances  to effectively counter security threats. Small nations such as Sri Lanka, with comparatively limited maritime resources also can become an integral element of maritime security in the region, said Minister Harsha de Silva. Sri Lanka  should  carve out a role for itself in the region, said  admirers.

Sri Lanka is well positioned  to play a strategic role in the Indian Ocean, due  to its strategic location in the international maritime route.  Sri Lanka  is   also at the crucial entry points of the Bay of Bengal, observed analysts. ,Sri Lanka  has an important responsibility for regional security in addition to national security, announced Yahapalana   we share responsibility in keeping its waters safe said  Prime Minister Ranil  Wickremesinghe .

It was the duty of the Sri Lanka navy to protect the entire Indian Ocean region without limiting its operation to the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka, said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Critics pounced on this remark. This comment is cause for grave concern said Vitarana. Sri Lanka navy was been asked to protect the entire Indian ocean. Our navy cannot even protect us from the Indian fishermen. If Sri Lanka navy is to carry out this huge responsibility, then US ships will have to be berthed in Sri Lanka.   The US 7th fleet will come to Trincomalee.  (CONCLUDED)

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