Posted on April 27th, 2023

By Uditha Devapriya Courtesy Ceylon Today

During a visit to Sri Lanka on 14 December 2015, then US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Designate Thomas Shannon announced the launch of the first US-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue. The Dialogue, held in February the following year in Washington, sought to enhance cooperation between the two countries in several key areas, including governance, development cooperation, people-to-people ties, economic cooperation, and security cooperation.

At the Dialogue, much was made of the common links between the US and Sri Lanka, including their contribution to the promotion of democratic governance”. The initiative had been the brainchild of a government perceived as more pro-West and pro-US than its predecessor. While such geopolitical considerations had a significant say in the Dialogue, however, they also highlighted the potential and the limitations of US attempts at cementing ties with Sri Lanka.

Ostensibly, the Dialogue sought greater engagement with Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, as with all such initiatives, it ended up framing and promoting such engagement through the prism of certain key geopolitical issues, including though not limited to US-China tensions in the Indo-Pacific. This was reiterated by then US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who stated that the US would like to calibrate its relationship with a Sri Lankan military that was strong” and that reinforced shared regional security interests.” These interests obviously included Washington’s concerns about China’s activities in the Indian Ocean, concerns shared by New Delhi.

There is of course nothing wrong or objectionable in this. Countries pursue their interests and they view their relations with other countries through the prism of those interests. The US, like India and China, has long viewed Sri Lanka as a strategic outpost in a strategic ocean, an ocean that has for all intents and purposes become the most contested maritime sphere in the world. The US, however, has got bad press over the last three or four decades. Much of that bad press has, for the lack of a better way of putting it, been deserved: its adventures or misadventures in other regions, and its promotion of democracy with whatever means, has not been to the liking of countries which view any form of interventionism with concern, if not suspicion.

How, then, can the US and Sri Lanka recalibrate their links with each other? It must be noted that such a task will not be easy. The US’ reputation in South Asia, even in India, is not what it used to be. Though India has become its de facto partner in the region, Delhi is showing signs of wanting to gain a stronger hand. Small States in South Asia, by virtue of their troubled relations with New Delhi and their historically friendlier ties with China, have not been too keen on getting closer to the US. The Nepali Government’s decision to deny entry to the Head of the CIA, on the basis that the latter’s presence in the country was not conducive”, is one of several recent examples.

On the other hand, the US cannot be expected to view Sri Lanka through any other prism. It will continue to make bilateral ties contingent on its motives and interests within the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific. In that respect, rumours that the Head of the CIA made a secret visit to the country, rumours that have not been officially denied yet, have supplemented vague and intriguing remarks by US officials that have actually visited the island: to take one example, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Defence Jedidiah P. Royal’s statement that he had not visited Sri Lanka to discuss a camp in Trincomalee.” Such remarks are really attempts by US officials to allay domestic fears about the ownership of the island’s strategic regions.

One strong point which neither Washington nor Colombo has explored, which has the potential of improving bilateral ties without necessarily bringing in security, would be cultural interactions. For some strange reason, though, while people-to-people ties and cultural cooperation was brought up and flagged at the first US-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, the press releases and joint statements did not highlight such areas: they were, and continue to be, more concerned with military cooperation, trade prospects, and security concerns. While the latter areas do constitute the cornerstone of US ties with any country, and not just Sri Lanka, it is intriguing why Washington has not seen it fit to use cultural diplomacy to engage more constructively with the island.

Sri Lanka and the US celebrated 75 years of bilateral relations this year. However, Sri Lanka’s ties with the US go back much further, by at least 235 years: the first recorded American encounter with the country comes up in 1788, eight years before British colonisation of the Maritime Provinces. These initial encounters were based on trade, but they eventually evolved into more concrete and official engagements. In 1850, John Black became the first US emissary to the country in his capacity as US Commercial Agent in Galle. For decades his graveyard was believed to be situated somewhere in the Galle Fort. In September 2016, officials from the US Embassy managed to locate the site, an event of much significance for both countries, but one which hardly made headlines.

Apart from the economic and diplomatic connection, there is also the religious and cultural element. Yet, here too, Washington’s record at cementing ties with the island, indeed the region, has been less than felicitous: while the CIA sought to undermine Communism across Asia through a deft, strategic use of Buddhism, such efforts never paid off. Still, the US and Sri Lanka have had longstanding ties on the cultural-religious front, including Henry Steel Olcott’s involvement in the Buddhist Revival of the late 19th century, Anagarika Dharmapala’s links with Mary Foster, and Miranda de Souza Canavarro’s contribution to Buddhist and women’s education in Sri Lanka.

Despite all this, it must be acknowledged that the US faces a huge credibility gap in the country and the region. It has received and continues to receive bad press over allegations of meddling in other countries’ affairs, allegations that its actions have done little to counter. Perhaps, before seeking deeper ties with Sri Lanka, it will have to address these gaps, to assure the island and its people that it does not view them through its Indo-Pacific strategy only. As Bhagya Senaratne has put it, the US should identify the individuality of Sri Lanka in the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions.” But then it is doubtful whether it will ever shift its policy in this direction, any time soon.

About the writer:

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

By Uditha Devapriya

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