USS Nimitz (bottom) steaming through the Gulf of Oman. Photo: US Navy via AFP
USS Nimitz (bottom) steaming through the Gulf of Oman. Photo: US Navy via AFP

The US Navy, against a backdrop of quickening relations between Sri Lanka and China, is sending the USS Nimitz to make the first port call by a US aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean nation in more than 30 years.

The huge carrier will dock in Sri Lanka’s port of Colombo on Saturday for three days – in the first such visit since the mid-1980s, according to a statement from the US embassy.

“Building our maritime partnership in step with Sri Lanka’s own progress on reconciliation and human rights advances our shared national goals of fostering security and stability,” said US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Atul Keshap in a statement.

“I’m delighted that US sailors will have the chance to visit Sri Lanka, meet with its wonderful people, and take part in public service activities at schools, hospitals, and rest homes that will improve the lives of Sri Lankans of all ages… While in port, sailors will also work with local non-profit organizations to support community service events at a local hospital, an orphanage, and other sites.”

The Nimitz and its escorting warships are currently one of three US carrier strike groups operating in the western Pacific. The show of force is a US response to continuing tensions with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. The deployments have also been made ahead of a visit by President Donald Trump to Asian nations later this week.

But the Nimitz’s flag-showing exercise in Sri Lanka also seems designed to counter a growing Chinese presence in the strategic nation which is not far from sea lanes that carry China’s oil shipments from the Middle East.

China’s state-owned China Merchants Port paid US$1.12 billion earlier this year to the Sri Lanka government for a 70% stake to develop the Hambantota port. Though China’s involvement in the project at Sri Lanka’s southern tip is touted as purely economic, critics contend the expansion of port facilities represents Beijing’s biggest challenge thus far to US naval dominance in the region. The investment is also viewed as a counter to India’s traditional influence in Sri Lanka and the rest of the Indian Ocean.

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