There was a sense of irony when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issued a statement on Twitter from Ha Noi condoling with the family of US Senator John McCain who passed away on August 25. The irony is not that the Sri Lankan PM has also caught on to the fashionable Twitter messaging of world leaders, [...]


Lanka’s role in Indian Ocean’s geopolitics


There was a sense of irony when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issued a statement on Twitter from Ha Noi condoling with the family of US Senator John McCain who passed away on August 25. The irony is not that the Sri Lankan PM has also caught on to the fashionable Twitter messaging of world leaders, but the well-known US Senator and Presidential hopeful had been a guest of the then North Viet Nam Government at the so-called ‘Ha Noi Hilton’ as a PoW for five years during the war with the USA.

The Viet Nam Government also issued a condolence message. Its spokesperson said the Senator was a “veteran from the war” and made a “great contribution to healing the wounds of war”. It only goes to show how international relations evolve over the years, and today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friend. The Indo-China war of over four decades is now history. The US is no longer interested in containing what it feared was the ‘Domino effect’ of Communism spreading in South East Asia. In those countries, the Communist Parties are now active promoters of capital-driven free markets and global trade, and Viet Nam’s economy is now open to US investors big-time.

In that sense, it seemed timely and appropriate that PM Wickremesinghe was in the Viet Nam capital to speak at the 3rd Indian Ocean conference (the 2nd was held in Sri Lanka). It was only the other day that he told an audience at home how when he was Minister of Industries in the R. Premadasa Government, his Viet Nam counterpart had asked him for tips on foreign investment. Sri Lanka had liberalised its economy in 1977 long before many others, but now Viet Nam had marched ahead as Sri Lanka fumbled and flopped in attracting foreign investments.

The main theme of the PM’s speech in Ha Noi was the Indian Ocean as ‘The Ocean of the Future’ – a maritime super highway that is fraught with superpower sea-mines as well as great opportunity to bring prosperity to those who live within its shores – the littoral states such as Sri Lanka.

He spoke of multilateralism and the dangers globalisation is facing in view of isolationist policies and trade wars; the growing rivalry spilling into the Indian Ocean with the expansion of new military bases by “major and middle powers” and those powers wanting to step into power vacuums.

In what seemed to be a little dig at the US’s Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that is primarily aimed at containing China’s growing influence as a superpower, the PM said that it does not have an “accepted identification of its territorial limits” with the economic and military rise of Asia. For the US, the TPP extends from the west coast of US to the west coast of India.

He asked a pertinent question. With China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (formerly known as the Silk Route) also encompassing and overlapping much of the US sponsored TPP area, “where do littoral states of the Indian Ocean (like Sri Lanka) stand?”  He went one step further asking; “In fact, do we need to take a stand?”

The question needs to be answered by the littoral states themselves, because the US or China would expect these states like Sri Lanka to stand with them, respectively. The Sri Lankan PM says countries like Sri Lanka should not be asked to take sides.

While this is clearly the best way to position Sri Lanka in these superpower manoeuvres, the collapse of the once influential Non Aligned Movement is unfortunate. Its revival seems remote. Already, the Movement’s one-time founders like Yugoslavia have disintegrated, while India and Egypt have hitched their wagons to the USA.

As a matter of fact, India and the US will hold their first 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi today (Sept. 2). Such a dialogue is reserved for the most intensive strategic partnerships powered vigorously by the Modi and Trump Administrations. India, after all, was an early and probably only critic of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.

Sri Lanka is not just balancing but juggling these competing forces. Its capitulation over the Hambantota port is a textbook case showcasing the plight of economically developing states being sucked into the power games of the Indian Ocean. It is still a mystery why the US-India-Japan axis allowed Hambantota to fall into Chinese hands.

Allowing the Japanese Defence Minister to visit the three major Sri Lankan ports, including Hambantota seems to indicate Sri Lanka’s eagerness to display its neutrality, while Japan appears to be stepping up to fill the US void, as the current Trump Administration is more keen on saving its defence expenses around the world. There are reports that Washington and Tokyo are coordinating their strategy on Sri Lanka vis-a-vis China’s growing influence.

While the Chinese premier is likely to visit Sri Lanka soon as this power game around the Indian Ocean reaches new heights, and discuss the Sri Lanka-China Strategic Partnership, Sri Lanka is allowing the US Peace Corps and joint military exercises and health clinics, US Coast Guard cutters etc., also to play out in the country. It’s the Dollars that haven’t poured in as the January 5, 2015 National Unity Government expected while China is ‘ready, willing and able’ to fill the ‘power vacuum’, the PM spoke about.

The Government, accused as it is of carving out Sri Lanka’s North and East to the India and the South to China, a policy begun by the previous Administration after the end of the Northern separatist insurgency in 2009, is entangled in a Gordian knot. India and China are, after all, the economic powerhouses of the coming decades and if Sri Lanka’s stagnant economy needs some impetus there is no way not to look to those two giant nations.

Today, trade and foreign investment are all linked to military, diplomatic and geo-political strategic interests. There’s no escape from that reality.

This week, a Defence Dialogue took place in Colombo. The discussions focussed geo-political fallouts. There is an Indian Ocean Track 1.5 conference to be held in Colombo on October 11 and 12. The Government’s Indian Ocean economic hub policy needs to be interwoven into a national security and strategic plan.

It is time Sri Lanka had a high calibre National Security Minister, preferably from the National List, or a high profile, intelligent and leading National Security Adviser at the PM’s office as other countries do, to see the ‘bigger picture’ and map out the fast changing dynamics of the modern world.



Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
Comments should be within 80 words. *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.