Janaka Perera weighs in on the battle to claim oceanic resources

Sri Lanka’s strategic importance in the Indian Ocean region has been known from ancient times. After all, the island is at the centre of the ancient maritime silk route. During World War II, it became the most important Allied military base in Asia, with the British Eastern Fleet based in Trincomalee, following the fall of Singapore to the Japanese.

Today, Sri Lanka is caught in a growing geopolitical competition in the Indian Ocean over access to oil and other resources. India, China and the US are determined to exercise their influence in the region. The Indian Ocean’s sea lanes are considered the busiest in the world, with about 80 percent of global seaborne oil trade passing through them.

As one of the world’s most strategically contested regions, the Indian Ocean (along with the Western Pacific) is expected to become the centre of future global politics.

The long-standing proposal to make the Indian Ocean a ‘zone of peace’ didn’t become a reality, following the end of the Cold War. While a committee was established in 1972 to implement a United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution to establish the peace zone, the US, Britain and France – the key Western members of that committee – withdrew in 1989. They argued that as major power rivalry in the Indian Ocean had diminished with the end of the Cold War, there was no justification for a peace zone.

Sri Lanka is most important to China because of its substantial imports of energy and export goods. Despite Indian concerns, Colombo committed itself to Beijing’s extensive network of ports and maritime facilities that connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans – formerly known as the ‘String of Pearls,’ and now as the One Belt, One Road initiative.

It has also led to the convergence of two more powers in Japan and Singapore, both of which are driven by their common interest of curbing China. It would appear that these nations are focussing on Sri Lanka not for our benefit, but solely for what is best for them, either individually or collectively.

Strategic imperatives lead to strange relationships. As China befriended the US in 1971, following Sino-Soviet rivalry, India is now Washington’s strategic ally in a joint effort to contain China. This represents a complete about-turn from the pre-1990 era when India – which was strongly allied with the Soviet Union – viewed with suspicion the establishment of a new and more powerful Voice of America (VOA) station in Iranawila, Sri Lanka.

The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that the US and India signed this year reflects what outgoing US President Barack Obama called a “defining partnership,” in the Washington Post in August.

This agreement is meant to trump up strategic and regional cooperation to deepen military exchanges and expand collaboration on defence technology and innovation. It allows for supplies and services between the two countries’ armed forces. Although the agreement does not obligate either party to carry out joint military exercises or establish bases, the US and Indian Navies have nevertheless been undertaking joint exercises, as curbing China is in the interests of both countries.

China has been Sri Lanka’s most generous all-weather friend even before diplomatic relations were established post 1956. From the Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 to the almost three-decade anti-LTTE military campaign, Beijing has been a great benefactor both in supplying arms and defending Sri Lanka at the UN, as well as building infrastructure in the aftermath of the conflict.

Whether in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere, the games great powers play leave in their wake unwelcome consequences such as in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In the light of these developments, Sri Lanka needs to handle foreign relations with care and foresight.

On 25 November last year, the Asian Tribune reported a US Department of State media release as stating that visiting US Ambassador Samantha Power looked forward to an ever-deepening Sri Lanka-US bilateral relationship to include stronger trade and investment linkages, and enhanced military relations.

A columnist in The Island has noted: “One thing that Sri Lanka, or for that matter any small country, could be certain of is that the interests of the five powers would take precedence over the concerns of Sri Lanka… The hard fact is that if a small country has what is important to a great power, the only issue that is on the table for negotiation is how best to survive.”

Despite its pre-election anti-China rhetoric, the present Sri Lankan government has realised that pragmatism requires that the country continues to engage with China to develop the island’s infrastructure.

Countries in the Indian Ocean region must collectively uphold non-aligned principles to protect the region from militarisation and warfare, and ensure freedom of navigation while leaving no room for external forces to exploit and manipulate local conflicts to achieve their objectives.