Sri Lanka must swim wisely amid Indian Ocean currents – Dr. Jehan Perera

Sri Lanka holds an important geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean, which is among the most contested regions in the world. And the island is a participant in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s extensive network of ports and maritime facilities connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The issue of China’s expanded presence in Sri Lanka has become a source of concern to three other major powers; and it has been on the international radar mainly due to the way in which the nation was induced to part with its land and property.

Both the Hambantota Port and the US$ 1.4 billion Colombo International Financial City (CIFC or Port City), which is strategically located adjacent to the Port of Colombo, have become Chinese territory in all but name. In both cases, high cost investments with the prospect of long-term gains, which Sri Lanka could not afford to repay in the short term, resulted in 99 year leases being granted to China.

This Sino presence is now a fact on the ground that will not disappear. And China’s presence in two of Sri Lanka’s ports is a matter of concern to other global powers that have an interest in them – viz. India, the US and Japan.

As Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour, India has the most reason to be unhappy with the Chinese presence at its southernmost tip. Its armed forces face off against the Chinese in a context of disputed territory in its northern parts. India’s concern has to
do with Sri Lankan ports being part of a network including Chinese built facilities in Myanmar and Pakistan to encircle India, and choke its access to the Indian Ocean.

Japan too would not want this String of Pearls – as the series of Chinese built ports are known – to be used to restrict freedoms vis-à-vis
the movement of fuel and goods by sea.

There is increased competition between superpowers in the Indian Ocean over which Sri Lanka has no control. The challenge for us is to maximise the benefits arising from this situation without being overwhelmed by pressures that may be brought to bear on it.

We can benefit from competition as Sri Lanka has in the case of a 480 million dollar grant from the US based Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). However, each of the global powers would feel threatened if Sri Lanka were to favour one over the other. This perception of threat will grow if we were to permit any of them a foothold in the country – especially in military terms – that is substantially larger than what they already have.

In addition, there are considerable economic benefits that could flow to Sri Lanka if the situation is carefully and tactfully handled given the island’s strategic geopolitical location.

Both India and Japan have invested in the Colombo and Trincomalee ports to mark their presence on the ground. Under a trilateral model, Japan has ensured that India remains a vital partner in its activities in the Indian Ocean.

India has been offered a lease agreement for 50 years that’s extendable up to a maximum of 99 years to develop the Upper Oil Tank Farm in Trincomalee’s China Bay, 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 for Sri Lanka to expand the Trincomalee Harbour into a much larger trade port. The state is entering into a partnership with India and Japan to develop a deep-sea container terminal with 49 percent foreign ownership, which lies next to a Chinese run container terminal in Colombo Harbour that has 85 percent Sino-ownership. In doing so, Sri Lanka has attempted to follow a multi-aligned foreign policy.

Over the past four years, Sri Lanka has followed such a multi-alignment that builds on the nonaligned foreign policy of the 1970s as articulated by the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike for which it gained international stature.

Sri Lanka hosted the 1976 nonaligned summit where nearly 100 heads of state visited the country and gathered at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), which was donated for the purpose by China.

Unlike the nonaligned foreign policy of the 1970s, today’s multi-aligned stance recognises the greater interest that superpowers have in Sri Lanka and its location in the Indian Ocean.

In particular, Sri Lanka will have to be mindful of its mutual security interests with India. The freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean implies that there should be no military alliances with any of the large powers but only economic, cultural and political cooperation with each of them.