Posted on September 24th, 2017


The Yahapalana government has suddenly discovered the Indian Ocean, which has been there for centuries all round us. Several international conferences on the Indian Ocean have taken place in Colombo. These conferences, we are told, are to discuss   global trade in the region and the need for regional cooperation, but it is clear that the ulterior motive is military action. Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Bay of Bengal has been greatly emphasized, specially the fact that Sri Lanka  is at the crucial entry points of the Bay of Bengal   Sri Lanka location, coupled with Trincomalee  port, is  important for military activity, not trade.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe observed that the Indian Ocean region was now seeing the rise of regional powers with nuclear capabilities. Given the rising conflicts in the Middle East and West Asia, the world’s major powers have deployed substantial military forces in the Indian Ocean Region. This trend will continue until these conflicts are resolved, he said. India, USA and China are increasing their naval presence in the Indian Ocean, he continued. There is a maritime build up taking place. Naval power will play an important role. Countries will compete for naval power and control of the sea in the Bay of Bengal.

USA has made it clear that the United States will continue to be an Indo-Pacific power. ‘This has been a long standing part of U.S. foreign policy and it will not change in the decades to come,’  said Alice G. Wells,  Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian  Affairs speaking  at the Indian Ocean Conference 2017 in  Colombo. US is anxious to challenge China using the Bay of Bengal as the theatre of war. In order to do so, USA plans to take control of the Bay of Bengal quietly without much fuss, using Sri Lanka, India and Japan to do so.

US says it is ready to help protect merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal. But its real interest is in intelligence and intelligence sharing between the naval services. US also wants greater naval cooperation 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    said it is committed to building the coast guard capacity of ‘our Indian Ocean partners’ too . US wants to Improve community policing, aviation security, and forensics analysis in the region as well.  That, the US said, was to combat terrorism, transnational crime, human trafficking and illicit drugs. There is no mention of war.

Maritime security in the Bay of Bengal is now a matter of much concern. There are 10 critical choke points in the Indian Ocean that remain vulnerable to air and maritime encounters and possible terrorist attacks, said analysts.   South Asia will need to build military alliances to maintain its security and rate of growth.  They must be able to effectively counter security threats.

A policy on maritime security is urgently needed for Sri Lanka and India continued analysts.  Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives at Pathfinder Foundation) 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.

The pro-US countries say they don’t want the Bay of Bengal militarized, while at the same time making sure that it is. They say they want to avoid war in the Bay of Bengal. Frances Adamson, Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia said ‘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.

India is seen by this group as the leader in the Bay of Bengal. We welcome India’s strengthened relationship with the United States and increased engagement in the broader Indo-Pacific, including with ASEAN-centred forums,” said Adamson. India is an emerging great power and a natural leader in the Indian Ocean region and globally.

The Indian subcontinent is positioned at the centre of this most important ocean said others. India, with a nearly 7,500 kilometers of coastline, is the fastest developing economy and the strongest military power in the region. Sri Lanka has its geostrategic location.  Both need to play a mutually-supporting role in maintaining freedom of navigation and ensuring the sustainable exploitation of resources in accordance with the concept of the Blue Economy, said analysts.

Japan, India and the US are worried that China will use its foothold in Sri Lanka to establish a military base. The Hambantota agreement is a commercial one, not government to government, said Amal Jayawardene. China has no exclusive right to the harbor. Hambantota Port would not be turned into a military base said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Only Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces are allowed to carry out military activities in ports and airports.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka ports will only be for commercial activity and will not be available to anyone for any military activity. Sri Lanka will not enter into military alliances with any country or make the country’s bases available to foreign countries. Sri Lanka would not support or be part of any military activity in the Indian Ocean and was committed instead to ensuring peace and maritime security in the region, said the authorities. Our focus will be on freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and maritime security,” However, the government will continue military cooperation in training, supply of equipment and taking part in joint exercises with friendly countries.

China is watching developments. In 2014 when the Japanese Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka a Chinese submarine berthed in Colombo port during the visit.   Japan and India saw it as a message to them about China’s influence over the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. China also made a      request to send a submarine to dock in Colombo port just when Prime Minister Modi was due to visit Sri Lanka. China said the submarine needed to re-supply on its way to the Gulf of Aden. Sri Lanka refused permission for the submarine to dock in Colombo port during the Indian premier’s visit.

China is, at the moment, leading in the Big Power war. India tried to have a confrontation with China over the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. After ten weeks, the Indian army pulled back from Doklam border, but Chinese army remained. Chinese border troops will continue to be stationed in Doklam said China. Analysts observed that USA kept quiet about the matter and said nothing in support of India.

In august 2017,  US warship USS John S McCain deliberately sailed close to the disputed Spratly Islands, claimed by China. It was engaging in a ‘freedom of navigation operation’, known as fonop”. China repeatedly told the ship to go away. ‘Please turn around, you are in our waters’ China said.  This ‘fonop’ was the third in the South China Sea carried out by the United States since President Donald Trump took office. It was far less assertive than an earlier one in May 2017 when the USS Dewey did a 90-minute zigzag within the 12- nautical-mile zone, said the media.

Vietnam had arranged a joint venture with Spain’s Repsol and Mubadala Development Company of the United Arab Emirates to engage in gas-drilling in a disputed area of the South China Sea.   Chinese authorities apparently threatened to attack Vietnamese military bases in the islands of Truong Sa (Spratly) if the drilling proceeded. General Fan Changlong, deputy chair of China’s Central Military Commission,  visited Madrid to complain of Repsol’s participation in the drilling of a maritime area claimed by China. Vietnam called off the venture, which was in its exclusive economic zone. This shows that even nations with a history of toughness are buckling under intense Chinese pressure, said the media.  (Continued)

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