The port facility at Hambantota on February 10, 2015. Sri Lanka's government is mulling the future of a string of white elephants. Photo: AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
The port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka. A Chinese company is running what was a white elephant. Photo: AFP / Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

Recent parliamentary debates concerning defense and security in Sri Lanka were mainly focused on the country’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. News outlets such as the Maharaja Corporation sensationalized the agreement as a “threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty,” among various other commentators on the subject.

US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz commented that the agreement concerning military training and cooperation “is not inimical to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka in any way.” She said the agreement was under negotiation and would be published once signed.

This statement is responsible enough, as fears have been sparked of Sri Lanka becoming a US military base. In such a light it is up to Sri Lanka to come to the bargaining table with a strong voice and gain the most out of the agreement while also evading hegemonic designs for US influence in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics.

Setting the context

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a highly strategic yet a volatile body of water with heavy international maritime traffic. Often considered the world’s third-largest ocean, it carries half of the world’s container cargo. The forces of globalization have resulted in a surge in shipping trade and competition: More than 80% of the world’s seaborne oil trade transits the Indian Ocean.

The IOR hosts several key developing economies, including China, India, Australia, Singapore, South Africa and Thailand. A third of the world’s population lives in this region, making this area a large market.

While acknowledging the strategic significance of the IOR, it must be noted that it is also a highly volatile and a deeply militarized region with a history of strategic rivalries. As world-renowned scholars have argued, the center of gravity of international politics is moving toward the Asia-Pacific, of which the IOR is at the center. In order to prevent militarization and preserve trade interests, countries such as Sri Lanka are at the forefront of promoting the IOR as a zone of peace. But today we see a region that struggles to engage in demilitarization of the oceans while balancing this with concerns about the need to fight ocean crime and contain potential aggressor states and revisionist powers.

History of militarization in IOR

In the age of expedition and discovery, European powers traversed the Indian Ocean in search of colonies for conquest. These expeditions subjugated indigenous populations and also made various political, economic, religious and cultural imprints. During the First and Second World Wars the Indian Ocean was highly militarized.

In 1922 it was decided by the US, Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy to reduce the number of warships in the region. This was proposed through the signing of the Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty. However, the treaty did not completely end militarization of the IOR, because of World War II. Colonies had to enter a compromise: to fight the colonizers’ war in return for their independence.

The Cold War required the presence of Western powers in the region to contain Soviet influence, a justification for the agreement between the US and Britain on British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965. This agreement controversially made provision for military presence in the Chagos Archipelago and Diego Garcia becoming a US military base. While the removal of the British of naval presence left a vacuum, the United States came to the forefront to fill this void with naval operations conducted through allied forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union Naval Force  (EUNAFVOR) to patrol the seas to fight maritime piracy and other ocean crime.

The modern facets of ocean militarization are more nuanced and complex in detail, however.

Prevalence of strategic rivalries

As the center of gravity in international politics shifted toward the Asia-Pacific region, the Indian Ocean’s strategic relevance was of concern to both regional and extra-regional powers. Maritime piracy, maritime terrorism, and hijacking and armed robbery of ships were considered threats to the safety of navigation and transport of cargo. Other ocean crimes such as trafficking of drugs, arms, humans and contraband are not direct threats to maritime supply chains but pose human security concerns at regional and state levels. The EUNAFVOR and NATO special anti-piracy operations, joint patrols and sea exercises became quintessential, as regional navies and coast guards were not adequate to deal with the threats.

Regional conflicts such as the Gulf War called for American naval presence (Seventh and Fifth Fleets) conducting patrols in the Arabian Sea littoral. The revival of US naval presence by amplifying its capabilities through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was seen as a response to Chinese influence in the South China Sea, such as Beijing’s naval modernization and creation of artificial islands. In such a light, there are special offshore interests in the Indian Ocean that include critical islands such as the Coco Islands, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Sri Lanka and several strategic ports that connect the Strait of Malacca.

For China’s energy dependency, the Strait of Malacca is critical. Beijing’s investment in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar, was strategic to reduce this dependency. While the Andaman and Nicobar Islands give India a strategic advantage, the Coco Islands, administered by Myanmar, are vulnerable to Chinese influence. Unsubstantiated reports about the Coco Islands being used for Chinese intelligence and naval facilities have formed important security considerations for India.

An analyst for the Observer Research Foundation has argued the Chinese influence in the Coco Islands provides Beijing with an ability to monitor the Indian Navy. In a similar manner, Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands under a potential US-Australia defense agreement could provide the US a similar advantage.

These strategic rivalries pitting China against the bulwark of India, the US, Australia and Japan working together create a highly nuanced militarization; this is unlike what existed during the colonial or World War eras when conventional wars required militarization of the Indian Ocean. The modern militarization of oceans, the highly nuclearized dimension, and critical energy projects have created a policy gridlock, one where small littoral states cannot freely choose whether to allow militaristic considerations or not. This is against the backdrop of ocean crime, securing sea lanes, and the need for mutual assistance in humanitarian disasters.

Contentious defense proposals

Sri Lanka is a gold mine for the US and China among other regional powers because of its highly strategic location. Sri Lankan ports witnessed a history of militarization that included the natural port of Trincomalee being used as a dual-purpose port by the Royal Navy during World War II. The modern fear is militarization of the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota by the Chinese, which was dispelled by Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe, who remarked: “Many people consider that the Hambantota port is a Chinese military base. I accept that there will be an army camp. But it is a Sri Lanka Navy camp. Once installed, a Sri Lankan rear admiral will be in control. Any ship from any country can come there. But we control the operations.”

Irrespective of the Sri Lankan prime minister being domestically unpopular, he is internationally very well received and is considered a competent man including in matters of defense. The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were a good example of the failure of President Maithreepala Sirisena, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to act in a timely manner despite warnings from the chief of national intelligence. US defense proposals therefore come in a timely yet odd manner: they include mechanisms to set up exchanges of terrorist screening information, the operation of US telecommunication and radio spectrum, an Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) and SOFA.

The first US-Sri Lankan SOFA was signed in 1995 by the government of president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The most recent SOFA under negotiation has created controversy, with parliamentarians and other observers calling for more transparency; this includes veteran journalist Lasanda Kurukulasuriya.

An SOFA in essence prevents US defense personnel from being prosecuted in a foreign jurisdiction where they are being hosted by party to the agreement. Such agreements are dangerous in the sense that they provide a wide range of immunities and exemptions to US personnel. These include the ability to bypass all local licensing authorities, which is covered under their definition of “all professional licenses,” exemption from local customs inspections of US military equipment, and free movement of personnel throughout Sri Lanka without the payment of overland transit tolls. Although some of these may not be sovereignty-specific issues, they evoke a very strong sense of American exceptionalism.

Irrespective of the above concerns, Sri Lanka also has quite a lot to gain if it has strong negotiators as opposed to charlatans that posit themselves as “national security advisers.” Former defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was an example of such strong negotiators, who bargained and signed the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement in 2007. This agreement on reciprocal defense services concerning logistical support, supplies and services was signed at a time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were strongest.

The most recent ACSA did not come in under any extraordinary circumstance, unless we were to interpret the Easter Sunday attacks as being a trigger event for enhanced US-Sri Lanka defense cooperation. Nevertheless, one should not blatantly attack the US for encroaching on Sri Lankan sovereignty at a time when multilateral defense assistance is needed to combat various vices including transnational organized crime in both land and maritime domains. Therefore Sri Lanka as a small state should consider defense cooperation, albeit while carefully studying the proposals and knowing where to draw the line.

The views presented are the author’s own and do not represent those of any institution the author is affiliated with.

Natasha Fernando

Natasha Fernando obtained her Bachelor of Laws from the University of London and a Bachelor of Arts in international studies in Sri Lanka. She works as a program officer at the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Colombo. Her area of research is defense and security.

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