SPECIAL REPORT : Part 167April 25, 2017, 7:43 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
America’s longstanding strategic partner, Japan, is working overtime to induce Sri Lanka to their camp.
Japan and Sri Lanka reached an agreement, on ‘Comprehensive Partnership’, in Oct 2015, within months after the change of the Rajapaksa government perceived to be very close to China.
The change of government in January 2015, paved the way for the ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ and the growing US-Sri Lanka relationship. Japan underscored the relationship a with high profile naval squadron visit to Colombo in Oct last year with the media invited for the first time to visit the training squadron of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF).
Having facilitated the ouster of war - winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, the Western camp has been engaged in a high profile campaign to ‘secure’ Sri Lanka. Visits undertaken by the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in May, 2015, and the US Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, in August last year, underlined Sri Lanka’s strategic importance.
Japanese security expert Dr. Satoru Nagao recently speculated about Japan helping Sri Lanka to acquire Lockheed P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft. The First Lieutenant of the Japanese Army believes Sri Lanka can be a base for strategic maritime surveillance over the Indian Ocean.
Nagao, who is now Research Fellow at the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government - run Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), in his latest paper, titled ‘Japan can be the best partner for Sri Lanka and India.’ discussed Japanese assistance meant to strengthen Sri Lanka’s maritime capabilities.
India seeks US assessment
on H’tota port
In the wake of Nagao’s latest paper, the writer examined the Japanese expert’s contribution to INSS Defence Review 2017, titled ‘Changing US-China Power Balance and the Role of Japan-Sri Lanka-India Co-operation.’ Considered Sri Lanka’s only security think tank, INSS included Nagao’s piece in its first publication. Before discussing Nagao’s piece, it would be pertinent to examine the classified US diplomatic cable that dealt with US-India talks on the proposed China building of the Hambantota port. Thanks to Wikileaks, Sri Lanka is aware of the discussion in New Delhi, on the Hambantota port even before the construction of the inland port got underway, in January 2008. Sri Lanka and China inaugurated the first stage in Nov 2010.
Let me reproduce the relevant section of the US diplomatic cable that dealt with the April 26, 2007, meeting the New Delhi - based US diplomat had with the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry Mohan Kumar, presently India’s Ambassador to France. Having functioned as the Desk Officer in charge of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1990-1992), Kumar received the appointment as Deputy High Commissioner, in Colombo, in late 2001. At the time Kumar had taken up the Hambantota port issue with the US as revealed in Wikileaks cable, he had been head of the division that handled relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Kumar has discussed the Indian navy stepping up patrols in the waters between India and Sri Lanka and expressing concern over Chinese involvement in the Hambantota port project. Kumar has also bitterly complained about Chinese taking advantage of the situation in Burma, at the expense India, and warned the US pressure on New Delhi to take up democracy and human rights issues with the Burmese military leadership facilitated the Chinese project there. The US diplomat quoted Kumar as having told him "We’re getting screwed on gas."
The following is the section on the Hambantota port: "The situation in Sri Lanka is "bad, really bad - beyond bleak" in Kumar’s judgment. Characterizing the government and the LTTE as two sets of people with scant regard for the international community, Kumar was sceptical that political progress could be achieved anytime soon. He confirmed reports that the Indian Navy has stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka are doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which he estimated China was willing to spend $500 million to help develop. He noted that China has increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opining that Rajapaksa had a "soft spot" for China following his visit to Beijing on March 9."
At the time of the New Delhi discussion, the Sri Lankan military had been battling the LTTE in the Eastern Province and was engaged in building up fighting formations to launch the Vanni offensive. An outright battlefield victory over the LTTE seemed very unlikely at that time with the Divisions based in the Jaffna peninsula unable to overcome the LTTE northern front-line.
The construction of the Hambantota port commenced in January 2008 amidst fierce fighting on the Vanni front. Even then, the LTTE retained formidable fighting capacity in spite of the US providing required intelligence to Sri Lanka to hunt down four LTTE floating arsenals in international waters. US intelligence certainly helped Sri Lanka to change the course of the war though subsequently the world’s solitary super power went out of its way to oust the war-winning President.
Western project fails to
Having failed to oust Rajapaksa, at the January 2010, presidential polls, in spite of ensuring the Tamil National Alliance support to Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Western powers and their allies, including India, succeeded at the January 2015, presidential poll. However, they appeared to have failed to thwart major Chinese projects here. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has been compelled to defend and praise Chinese projects after having flayed China in the run up to the presidential and general elections, in January and August, 2015, respectively. Interestingly, the Chinese made an abortive bid to win over former President Rajapaksa’s support for its Hambantota project. Although, Rajapaksa, accompanied by former External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, recently visited Beijing, where they discussed the impending agreement, they failed to reach consensus with Rajapaksa declaring that he would extend his support only if China and yahapalana government followed the original agreement on Hambantota.
Sri Lanka in turmoil
Today, Sri Lanka is in turmoil over proposed agreements with India and China on the ports of Trincomalee and Hambantota, respectively. The UNP-SLFP coalition is sharply divided over the agreements with one time Petroleum Minister Susil Premjayantha flaying India over her bid to secure vital land in Trincomalee. Subsequently, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa threw his weight behind Minister Premjayantha whose candid assessment raised many an eyebrow. Minister Premjayantha has alleged that India was hell bent on acquiring Trincomalee land through the acquisition of Trincomalee oil tank farm.
Regardless of President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent assurance that he wouldn’t do anything inimical to Sri Lanka’s interest, obviously, petroleum sector trade unions, affiliated to various political parties, including the UNP, seemed to be sceptical about President Sirisena’s assurance. Over the last weekend, they threatened to bring the country to a standstill unless the ruling coalition abandoned the proposed agreement on Trincomalee harbour with India. Petroleum sector workers disrupted supplies on Monday resulting in chaos. They returned to work Monday night after having received an assurance from Premier Wickremesinghe that the Trincomalee oil tank farm wouldn’t be handed over to India. Premier Wickremesinghe yesterday left for India.
Premier Wickremesinghe seems to be determined to go ahead with both Hambantota and Trincomalee projects in spite of growing opposition. Wickremesinghe is of the opinion that both projects are equally important to Sri Lanka. Wickremesinghe subscribes to the opinion that the agreement with India is of crucial importance in the wake of China-Sri Lanka deal on Hambantota.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has alleged Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval called for the cancellation of USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project, the Colombo Port City. In addition to that demand which Rajapaksa said was very unfair; India demanded that Sri Lanka take over Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).
CMPH holds 85% of the partnership whilst the balance 15% is being held by SLPA.
Rajapaksa quoted Doval as having told him that India wanted all Chinese funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port. Rajapaksa quoted Doval as having said: "Sri Lanka is a small country; you don’t need such development projects."
Nagao’s comment on co-operation among Japan, India and Sri Lanka should be examined against the backdrop of US building up an alliance to counter China. Obviously, Nagao is promoting Japanese policy in respect of Sri Lanka in an environment Colombo can be part of the US led grouping. The proposal to use Sri Lanka as a base for strategic maritime surveillance over the Indian Ocean has been made in the wake of US-India agreement to enable US forces to utilize Indian bases and vice versa. India recently signed Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) with US. The agreement irked some though it certainly served India’s strategic objectives and the inclusion of Japan in Malabar naval exercise in 2015 is evidence of US project meant to form a strong military alliance to meet the Chinese challenge.
Growing relationship between India and Vietnam, too, should be taken into consideration when the US project is analysed.
Nagao on New Delhi’s intentions
The Japanese expert has alleged that India intervened in Sri Lanka in the 80s to thwart the US from using Sri Lanka as a base. While emphasizing Sri Lanka’s strategic importance in relation to security in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, Nagao assented that India deployed its Army in northern and eastern districts of Sri Lanka because New Delhi dreaded the likelihood of the US using Sri Lanka as a naval base at that time. Indian High Commissioner in Colombo at the time of military intervention here, J.N. Dixit, in his memoirs "Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha’ discussed the circumstances leading to destabilization of Sri Lanka.
Dixit said that India’s motivations and actions vis-a-vis Sri Lanka should be analysed taking into consideration the larger perspective of the international and regional strategic environment between 1980 and1984. Dixit justified Indian project in Sri Lanka while blaming the US and Pakistan for exploiting the situation to cause a rift between Sri Lanka and India at that time. Dixit stated: "The rise of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka and the Jayewardene government’s serious apprehensions about this development were utilised by the US and Pakistan to create a politico-strategic pressure point in India in the island nation."
Surely, Nagao cannot be unaware that India destabilized Sri Lanka to pave the way for the deployment of its Army. India swiftly deployed troops after having forced Sri Lanka to halt a large scale military operation in early 1987 wipe out the LTTE. Had Nagao bothered to peruse Dixit’s chapter on Sri Lanka ‘An Indo-centric Practitioner of Realpolitik’, he would realize that Cold War era strategic decision making India had another reason to cause terrorism in Sri Lanka. Alleging that Indian intervention in Sri Lanka had been one of the two major foreign policy blunders of Indian Premier India Gandhi, Dixit said that she had feared emergence of Tamil separatism in India if New Delhi refused to throw its weight behind Sri Lankan Tamils.
India ended up losing over 1,500 officers and men during Indian Army deployment here. In May 1991, over a year after Indian Army pulled out from Sri Lanka, a Tamil female suicide bomber blew up one-time Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu.
Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. China remained a major weapons supplier to successive Sri Lankan governments throughout the war. In the post-war era, China strongly defended Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) whereas the US and India targeted Sri Lanka. Japan and South Korea had no option but to refrain from siding with Sri Lanka owing to their strategic partnership with the US.
Today, India is working closely with the US in a bid to counter Chinese challenge. Both India, Japan as well as South Korea depend on US military might to counter China whereas the US, too, heavily depend on partners support in case of an emergency. Obviously, the long term objective of the US-led grouping is to deprive China of the opportunity to build up a lasting partnership with Sri Lanka and also to bring Colombo under its sphere of influence. Western powers as well as yahapalana leaders appeared to have underestimated China’s determination to secure an agreement on the Hambantota port. Had the Chinese not been so unfair in seeking totally a one-sided agreement, they could have easily concluded negotiations. The Chinese appeared to have jeopardized the entire project by seeking an arrangement at Sri Lanka’s expense, thereby creating an extremely hostile environment to Hambantota project.
Nagao has strongly underscored the importance of Japan, India and Sri Lanka partnership in the security domain. The bottom line is that Nagao wants Sri Lanka to be a member of US led alliance at Sri Lanka’s expense. Interestingly, the Japanese expert has used Sri Lankan government run project to promote closer cooperation among Japan, India and Sri Lanka to counter China.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has been plunged into crisis over the Hambantota and Trincomalee projects. With consensus among various stakeholders unlikely, the Joint Opposition is expected to exploit situation to its advantage ahead of May Day. The government, grappling with the unprecedented crisis caused by deaths of nearly 50 men, women and children due to the collapse of Meethotamulla garbage dump, displacement of families and subsequent protests against disposal of Colombo garbage in areas outside Colombo City limits is now in chaos. The coalition seemed to be incapable of responding rationally to plethora of issues ranging from daylight robbery at the Central Bank at the onset of President Maithripala Sirisena’s 100-day programme to disposal of garbage.