COLOMBO: There is increased competition between the global big powers in the India Ocean. The four main protagonists are India, the United States, China and Japan. The challenge to Sri Lanka is how to maximize the benefit to itself from this situation without being overwhelmed by pressures that may be brought to bear upon it. Sri Lanka can become a beneficiary of competition as it has in the case of the USD 480 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation of the United States. However, each of the global powers will see a threat to itself if Sri Lanka were to favour one over the other. The threat perception will grow if Sri Lanka were to permit any one of them a foothold within the country, especially in military terms, that is significantly bigger than what they already have.

Each of the four big powers mentioned above has a foothold within Sri Lanka. In the past four years Sri Lanka has been following a multi-aligned foreign policy which builds upon the non-aligned foreign policy of the 1970s articulated by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike for which it gained international stature. It was in 1976 that Sri Lanka hosted the non-aligned summit meeting which saw nearly heads of state come to the country where they gathered at the Bandaranaike International Memorial Conference Hall that was donated for the purpose by China. In the context of today’s big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s latest policy direction has been articulated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a manner so as to enable Sri Lanka to navigate the turbulent waters skillfully.

Speaking at the 4th Indian Ocean Conference on "Securing the Indian Ocean Region: Traditional and Non-Traditional Challenges", held in the Maldive Island, on 3 - 4 September 2019, the Prime Minister noted, “The Indian Ocean is tipped to become a theatre of contemporary global geopolitics with India and China on the one hand and the US and China on the other, competing for space. The competition is helping not only to drive a build-up of naval presence, but it is also spilling over into securing vital strategic maritime routes. This growing geo-strategic competition amongst established and emerging powers in the Indo – Pacific has far-reaching consequences.” An aspect of this competition was seen in September 2014 when a Chinese warship and submarine came into the Chinese-controlled section of Colombo port during Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe’s visit to Sri Lanka.

Chinese-built ports

The Prime Minister also observed that “With many of the powers looking to actively maintain or extend their control or influence, it is likely that the tension at sea will rise. It is vital that all maritime players realize the risks inherent in willfully destabilizing the maritime order, as there are binding economic interests that necessitate a greater degree of restraint and cooperation. For China, securing sea lanes has become a preoccupation with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - with its intent of building roads, pipelines and ports in friendly countries around the Indian Ocean. For India, China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean is a source of concern, especially in the South Asian neighborhood.”

The issue of China’s expanded presence within Sri Lanka has become a source of concern to the three other big powers and has been commented on internationally. This has been mainly due to the way in which Sri Lanka was induced to part with its land and property within the country, both in relation to the the Chinese-built Hambantota Port and to the Chinese-built Port City regained from the sea which is strategically located adjacent to Colombo Port. In both these cases, high cost investments with the prospect of long term gains were made which Sri Lanka could not afford to repay in the short term resulting in a Chinese take-over on 99 year leases. The Chinese presence is now a fact on the ground which will not go away.

The presence of China in two of the key ports of Sri Lanka is a matter of concern to the other three big powers. As Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour, India has reason to be unhappy with the Chinese presence at its southernmost tip while its armed forces face off against the Chinese in the context of disputed territory in its northern parts. The Indian concern is about Sri Lankan ports being part of a network of ports, including Chinese-built ones in Myanmar and Pakistan, to encircle India and choke its access to the Indian Ocean. Japan too would not want to see these “string of pearls,” as the series of Chinese-built ports are known, being used some time in the future to restrict freedom of the seas for movements of fuel and goods.

Reciprocity demand

If carefully and tactfully handled, there are significant economic benefits that could flow to Sri Lanka due to its strategic geopolitical location. Both India and Japan have invested in Colombo and Trincomalee ports to ensure their presence on the ground. Under a trilateral model, Japan has ensured that India remains a key partner in its activities in the Indian Ocean. India has been given a lease agreement for 50 years, extendable up to a maximum of 99 years, for the development of upper tank oil farm in Trincomalee, which is where Sri Lanka has a strategic naval harbour. This will include projects to develop a port, petroleum refinery and other industries. Japan has provided loans to Sri Lanka to expand the Trincomalee port into a much bigger trade port. In addition, Sri Lanka is entering into partnership with India and Japan to develop a deep-sea container terminal with 49 percent foreign ownership next to a Chinese-run container terminal in Colombo harbor which has 85 percent Chinese ownership.

Speaking at the graduation of the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training institute last month, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka’s focus is not to get into a military alliance with anyone but to go for economic, cultural and political cooperation with every country. The prime minister said “Be it India, China, Japan, European Union, US, Australia or Russia, we have made the Indian Ocean our key strategy. We are thinking of how we could leverage ourselves. We have to remember that the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean means there will be no military alliance with anyone but economic, cultural and political cooperation with everyone. We also have to be mindful of the mutual security interests of India and Sri Lanka.”

There is controversy today about both the Millennium Challenge Fund grant and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which is about an expansion of an existing agreement, first signed in 1995, with the United States regarding the ease of entry of US military personnel into Sri Lanka. The US economic assistance is in the form of a large grant, which is advantageous to Sri Lanka. The question, however, is whether Sri Lanka should enter into a fresh agreement that increases the range of military-related obligations and services provided. There are three other countries that will be watching. China now sees itself as a global power on the scale of the United States. If China were to demand reciprocity from Sri Lanka, a major dilemma would arise because India would surely object to a Chinese military presence. The African proverb that when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled is a warning to Sri Lanka.