brother must have its say
So what has happened to the Acquisition and Cross Servicing
agreement that Sri Lanka and the United States were preparing to sign
making possible closer military cooperation between them?
Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris was trying to under play the military
cooperation aspect of the planned agreement when I asked him about
it during his visit to London two months ago.
But it is hard
to deny that the agreement involves military cooperation when US
military personnel are expected to train our own soldiers in counter-terrorism.
When The Sunday
Times first broke the story it was promptly picked up by the wire
services. Later it was said the agreement would be signed when Prime
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Washington in July. This was
followed up some time later with the news that it will not be signed
during the visit as some details were still being thrashed out.
Times story which was confirmed by US embassy sources in Colombo
seemed to confirm somewhat an analysis last March by the Texas-based
intelligence firm Stratfor, that the United States was clearing
the grounds to deploy its military personnel in Sri Lanka. This
led to widespread speculation not only about the veracity of the
report but who made the first move-Washington or Colombo-what kind
of deployment it would be and what impact it would have on the region.
Some of the
questions were not without point. For early in February the US had
deployed several hundred troops including Green Berets in the Philippines
apparently to help the Philippine military put down the Abu Sayyaf
extremist group in southern Mindanao with apparent connections to
the al Qaeda. The US holds al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden
responsible for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
was also trying to pressure Indonesia to accept closer military
cooperation and introduce tough legislation against terrorism.
But for Washington,
especially the Pentagon, establishing closer military ties with
Jakarta is a more difficult task than sending troops to Philippines
for several reasons. One, of course, is that the US Congress suspended
military assistance to Indonesia over its involvement in human rights
violations in East Timor after the Timorese voted for independence.
Megawati Sukarnoputri's government would not find it easy to accept
US military assistance to put down any real or perceived Muslim
extremism in predominantly Muslim Indonesia without antagonising
hardline Muslim factions.
The case of
Sri Lanka is different. The Stratfor analysis followed a visit to
Sri Lanka by US Marine General Timothy Ghormley during which he
and an assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca visited Jaffna
where they had talks with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
To begin with
this was the first high-level US military and civilian officials
to visit Jaffna-a highly symbolic move- in recent memory. It came
at a time when Washington is looking for more dependable allies
in its fight against terrorism after the September 11 terrorist
attacks on the country and Colombo had entered into an understanding
with the LTTE to end a debilitating war.
analysis argued that a semi-permanent US military presence in Sri
Lanka would help the US in its campaign in Afghanistan-to oust the
Taliban, dismember the al-Qaeda and install a friendly government
there- as well as keep an eye on India's growing power.
Even if Indian
intelligence was not aware that it will not be long before Washington
and Colombo would discuss the issue of military cooperation because
of the particular congruence of interests at that very moment, the
Stratfor analysis surely alerted India to the fact that growing
US-Indian rapport would not detract from US strategic interests
in the region, particularly in the current international climate.
Even some Muslim
countries with real or potential terrorist concerns were becoming
more accommodating of US interests in creating or strengthening
But even the
most politically insensitive would understand that any agreement
that allows US forces the use of Sri Lanka's sea ports, airports,
air space and other facilities would only be possible if Big Brother
across the Palk Strait gave the nod.
Even if the
Indira Gandhi doctrine enunciated in the early 1980s which seemed
to give neighbouring states only limited sovereignty and that New
Delhi would be the ultimate arbiter of regional security issues,
is no long publicly stated there is little doubt that India still
adheres strongly to its belief in regional paramountcy.
is its principal concern and it can be quite paranoid about it as
Sri Lanka saw during the late 1970s and early 80s when even the
presence of three Israelis in Colombo was seen as a threat to India.
The fact that
New Delhi later established full diplomatic relations with Israel
and sought Israeli technological expertise to develop its missile
system and received other assistance from Israel is, of course,
quickly forgotten by Indian diplomacy.
It was the
divergence of views on security issues that was the key obstacle
to US-India relations during the Cold War. Moreover the Soviet Union,
Washington's Cold War antagonist, was India's closest ally.
But there has
been greater convergence in their views since the end of the Cold
War and the September 11 terrorist attacks. US-India military cooperation
has grown and joint military exercises have been held.
Yet New Delhi
is wary of any US military or quasi-military presence in this region.
India's objections to the J.R.Jayewardene government leasing out
the Trincomalee oil tanks to an American firm and the fall out from
other Sri Lanka foreign policy moves led to a serious breakdown
in bilateral relations and Indian aid to Tamil militant groups.
Sri Lanka would
like to see the threat of military ties with the US act as a brake
on any recourse to violence by the Tamil Tigers who are on the US
terrorist list since 1997.
But such ties
can only come if India agrees.
So as a quid
pro quo Colombo has offered India the oil tanks at Trincomalee so
that it need not worry about the harbour falling into foreign hands.
New Delhi can also keep an eye on the LTTE. It does not trust the
Tigers right now to stay out of Tamil Nadu. Faced with a Kashmiri
problem and suspected terrorists from Pakistan striking inside its
territory, New Delhi does not want more trouble in the south.
now an Indian presence in Trincomalee and the possibility of US
military help to Sri Lanka might seem convenient to all concerned,
Indian long term suspicions will be the obstacle to any US-Sri Lanka
military cooperation agreement.
That is what
seems to be delaying the signing of it. India will study it with
very greater care. Until then we sit back and wait.