Indian Ocean geopolitics and its impact on Sri Lanka
Posted on March 29th, 2018

I write to express my appreciation to Prof. Gamini Keerawella (Prof. Emeritus, University of Peradeniya), for publishing excerpts of a keynote address titled “Indian Ocean: Maritime Security” delivered by him at the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies (The Island, March 16-17, 2018). His address was not only scholarly and erudite but is also of great significance to Sri Lanka, in light of the ongoing Great Powerplay currently taking place in the Indian Ocean.

The topic is of particular interest for two reasons that have been of concern to me.. The first was addressed in an article by me titled “Sri Lanka and great power relations” (The Island September 27, 2016). It dealt with the need “for Sri Lanka to prepare itself” to face the inevitable consequences arising from the geopolitical interplay of great powers in the pursuit of their respective self-interests in the Indian Ocean. The second was that at a recent meeting when the question was asked as to what should be the greatest concern for Sri Lanka, my response was how a small country like Sri Lanka could survive in a big pond such as the Indian Ocean in the midst of geopolitical interests of great powers.

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Indian Ocean

This concern is addressed by Prof. Keerawella when he states: “As history has taught us many a time, when a political power comes forward to dominate the Indian Ocean unilaterally, Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independent action is highly curtailed. It must be noted China’s blue water naval entry into the Indian Ocean and the diplomatic overtures to the Indian Ocean littoral has enhanced Sri Lanka’s strategic significance before India and the United States. In order to make use of the opportunities presented in this context, Sri Lanka needs handle the situation with sharp diplomatic skills with a clear strategic plan and vision. We should be conscious of the opportunities as well as the pitfalls”.

Similar concerns were expressed in my article of September 27, 2016 when it stated: “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”.

“The recently signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement between the US and India is a significant symbol of the “defining partnership” between the two countries. 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”.

Sri Lanka, too, signed an Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement with the US in 2007, with the provision for extension for a further ten years in 2017. Such infrastructural arrangements coupled with the engagement of countries such as the US, India, Japan and Singapore in Sri Lanka are to curb Chinese influence in Sri Lanka and in the Indian Ocean arising from its One Belt One Road strategy.

However, at this point in time there are differences between the interests of these major powers. Unlike the US with its super power status and India as the regional power, the engagement of Japan and Singapore in Sri Lanka’s economic development has more to do with their role as strategic frontline partners of the US. However, in the case of India and the US their interests go beyond the economic to include the shaping of political outcomes within Sri Lanka. Although China, on the other hand, is currently focused on a strong presence through economic activity in Sri Lanka it could at any time extend its influence to even the political in pursuit of its One Belt One Road strategy.

LESSON from the MALDIVES

Commenting on developments in the Maldives, Dr. David Brewster of the Australian National University stated: “In the last few days we have seen growing strategic rivalry between major powers such as China and India as they expand their roles in the region. We are now also seeing new players competing to build their own areas of influence and blocs in the Indian Ocean and this could be another concern for India…India is particularly alarmed by the growing Chinese presence in the region and is responding…Experts believe that the Maldives is just another front for the Chinese. The small island nation has become a significant target for Beijing’s ambitious economic expansion. Its international Airport, the major road connecting it to the capital and other projects fall under “One Belt, One Road” (The Island, February 24, 2018).

Great power rivalries end up in creating internal political rivalries. These rivalries are invariably between the agents of the great powers. The result is political instability arising from political regimes that are installed to carry out the dictates of their great power backers. The current political situation in the Maldives is a case in point, with President Abdulla Yameen cracking down on the opposition in order to consolidate power.

Since Sri Lanka too has its share of sympathisers of great powers, how Sri Lanka could avoid similar potential pitfalls is the burning question.

US involvement in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs even to the extent of shaping the structure of the State, the role it plays in the direction of the stand taken by the UN Human Rights Council and about potential bilateral training between the US and Sri Lanka in a Pacific Partnership along with foreign militaries, is no secret. All of this is possible because of the current regime in Sri Lanka. How Sri Lanka extricates itself from this entrapment is compounded by the several and varied interests and ensuing rivalries of the great powers involved in the Indian Ocean.

A STRATEGY for SRI LANKA

Commenting on the impact on Sri Lanka from developments in the Indian Ocean the Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister is reported to have stated at the annual convocation of the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies: ‘…two important factors that shape the foreign policy of Sri Lanka and the role it can play in the region are the strategic location and the political relations the country has with the key players in the region India, China and Japan’ (Daily News, March 23, 2018) . Quoting the PM the report also states: “While we have good relations with these countries, we also need to understand the nature of rivalry and we should never get caught into that rivalry…as far as we maintain the neutrality and maintain friendship, there is no problem”.

Judging from the pathetic manner in which Sri Lanka has handled the charges of human rights and humanitarian law violations in the course of bring closure to the armed conflict backed up by resolution after resolution by the UNHRC, it is highly unlikely that Sri Lanka could remain unscathed in an environment of great power rivalries. The very fact that every effort is being made for Sri Lanka to be governed under a political arrangement shaped by the US is testimony to this doubt. Furthermore, the engagement with the US is such that Sri Lanka has already lost its ability to stay neutral.

The option for Sri Lanka is either to stay out of the fray of the rivalries of great powers and accept the fallout, or to be mindful of the opportunities that inevitably would be presented by the rivalry among the great power and use it for the benefit of Sri Lanka. For the latter strategy to succeed there has to be inter-party political consensus at least in regard this aspect of foreign relations.

CONCLUSION

Preoccupation with parochial issues has distracted Sri Lanka from focusing on vital issues of survival in an environment where great powers are increasingly becoming engaged in the Indian Ocean to varying degrees in the pursuit of their interests. While staying neutral and friendly with all these major players is in the best interests of Sri Lanka, achieving it requires diplomatic skills of an order that thus far have not materialized as evidenced by the mishandling of accountability issues associated with the armed conflict when Sri Lanka co-sponsored the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 .

The inability to develop a coherent strategy for survival requires political stability of an order that does not currently exist in Sri Lanka, considering the prevailing inter-party and intra-party rivalries that is compounded by the division of executive power between the President and the Prime Minister under the 19th Amendment. Under the circumstances, whatever policies that are likely to emerge would not be based of serious strategic planning, but on ad hoc statements made off the cuff to the detriment of Sri Lanka’s long term national interests.

Judging from current developments where Sri Lanka’s assets are either being sold or leased, and Sri Lankans are to be governed under structural arrangements formed and forged externally, the fate of Sri Lanka appears to be no different to the fate of the citizens of Melos at the hands of the Athenian Admiral, because Sri Lanka has lost its dignity and neutrality that it enjoyed when it was non-aligned. It could be argued that notions of non-alignment are passé in today’s world. Notwithstanding the need for global connectivity, Sri Lanka should as an absolute minimum seriously endeavour to self-determine a form and structure of government that best suits the human development of its citizens.

On economic issues on the other hand, arrangements negotiated and reached should not be restricted to a select few. Instead, it should be open and transparent with inputs from those conversant with geopolitical developments being factored in, instead of leaving it in the hands of deal makers. For instance, had Sri Lanka been aware that a harbor at Hambantota would serve Chinese interests far more than it would Sri Lanka in its pursuit of One Belt One Road strategy, Sri Lanka could have negotiated a better deal, even to the extent of building it free of cost. Conceptually, it should be to take advantage of the opportunities presented by great power activities in the Indian Ocean to benefit Sri Lanka. For instance, since all such activities are of greater significance and interest to these players than to Sri Lanka, the stand Sri Lanka should take is for costs to be borne by the players and for them to operate over a mutually agreed period of time without compromising the ownership of the asset at any time. However, while such a strategy would serve Sri Lanka’s interests best, the current inhibited mindset in place is not astute enough to deal with these international challenges.

If Sri Lanka is to have good relations with countries and remain neutral, she has to be extra vigilant not only of developments in the Indian Ocean but also political developments in the countries that have interests in the Indian Ocean. In short, the wisdom of the words that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty is indisputable, particularly when it comes to the survival of a strategically positioned small country such as Sri Lanka.

4 Responses to “Indian Ocean geopolitics and its impact on Sri Lanka”

  1. Christie Says:

    Very interesting. We are not a country where the majority (Sinhalese) have control over the country or themselves.

    See what India has done to the natives of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

  2. Christie Says:

    Namaste: The 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential election: How it happened? What it means for Sri Lanka (Ceylon)? What it means for the Indian Empire (Indian Union & its colonies)?
    How it happened? Another Indian job. The former President called an early election. The Indian imperialists (Indian Union) were ready to correct its mistake in 2005 when it backed Mahinda Rajapaksa over Ranil Wickramasinge. Then, Indian imperialists advised Indian block vote in the island to abstain from voting. The reason for the preference was Indian imperialists thought it will be easier to negotiate with Mahinda an unknown matter for India. When profiling Mahinda they did not take in to account his brothers, in particular Gotabaya who was in the USA at that time. Unfortunately for India, Mahinda did not follow Indian directions as former Sri Lankan leaders did since 1956. In 2010 India enrolled General Sarath Fonseka as a presidential candidate against Mahinda and failed. So behind the scene as Indian imperialist always do they were planning for years and had got former governor Chandrika Bandaranayake-Kumaranatunge to do the job and succeeded with doing a repeat of what India did with her father Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranayake in 1951. India did not have to wait for four years this time. India managed to divide the non-Indian vote and got the Indian block vote for Maithripala Sirisena the new Indian governor of Sri Lanka who may be the proxy for the real governor Chandrika.
    What it means for Sri Lanka? Nothing much. It will be the same as what the island nation had from 1956 to 2005 and before from 1792 to 1948. The Indian minority will run the country with the privileges they enjoyed since their arrival under the cover of the British fire power and their own nonviolent aggression and oppression. They will claim they are the victims of Majority Sinhala Chauvinists; the same claim that they make in other colonies from Fiji to Guyana. For example; finance and justice; most important ingredients in the world and heads of these two institutions in the island now are from the victimized minority and one of them has been brought from another colony.
    What it means for the Indian Empire? It means a lot to the Indian Empire. The former partner of the British-Indian Empire from Fiji to Guyana; that is all former tropical colonies of the British-Indian Empire. India lost its control over the island nation since 2005 as the new government of the island nation managed to wipe out the Indian terrorist arm; trained, armed, financed, managed and branded Tamil Tigers by India. Since the election of the new governor Indian cars and food have become cheaper with reduced tax on Indian products. Indian Imperialists have already indicated massive investments and projects in all sectors of the economy. This will not be a hard act as the island nation’s economy has been in their hands for more than two centuries and the business language in the country is an Indian language spoken by more than 75 million of them in India. The wealthiest in the island are Indian though their wealth is not stored in the island but most of it in India. Reclaiming the control over the island nation will supplement its control over the Indian Ocean and Indian Ocean countries. With its unchallenged military power; with ICBMs, Aircraft Carriers, Nuke Subs, Nuke (Peace) bombs and purchase of hundred billion dollars’ worth of military hardware the island nation provides the best step with Mauritius a third State of India to lay a drag line across the Indian Ocean.
    Jai Hind. Contact: [email protected]

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Mr Ladduwahetty says that “eternal vigilence is the price of liberty ….. “ – and we agree that this is all too true.
    Our grateful thanks to Mr Ladduwahetty for this article which paints the big picture accurately for Sri Lanka and the region.

    Shouldn’t all countries subject to such troubles work together in unison for the greater good of all mankind, and hopefully the bigger powers will join in too ?

    The Real Enemy of Mankind as we can see now is Climate Change and polluted air, water & food supplies.
    And also how to bring about lowering population growth peacefully with kindness, offering choices to adults re free and safe Family Planning ?

  4. Cerberus Says:

    Thank you Mr. Ladduwahetty for this mature and insightful article warning our leaders to grasp the opportunities and be wary of the power play of the giants. As you say the present Govt has behaved in a pathetic fashion since they came to power in 2015. I remember My3’s words when he appointed Ranil the traitor as the PM when we already had a PM and a Cabinet. He said he did it because the West wanted it so. Since then it appears that everything was done because the West wanted it so. We have been selling off our assets with no thought for tomorrow, borrowing and spending money like a drunken sailor (not on the people or the country), and the bond scam is a criminal offense for which Ranil should be held responsible since he was the one who brought in Arjun Mahendran.

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