Big 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?

Constitutional 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.

The Sunday 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.

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.

Moreover President 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.

The Stratfor 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 military ties.

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.

India's security 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.

Though right 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.

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