US Indo-Pacific Strategy: Sri Lanka’s Bankruptcy Fallout

Taking into consideration HC Jha’s declaration that security of India and Sri Lanka is ‘interlinked and intertwined,’ the same term can quite rightly describe the overall Indo-US strategy, though they are not on the same page regarding the Russia-Ukraine war.

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The training programme, commencing today at SLAF Base Ratmalana and facilitated through collaboration between the United States Department of Defense (DOD), the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, and the Sri Lanka Air Force, extending until 14 March 2024, primarily aims at providing comprehensive briefings and conducting Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) flight demonstrations, with a significant focus on enhancing Sri Lanka’s capabilities in Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) missions.

The US has announced the transfer of decommissioned USCGC Decisive (WMEC 629) to Sri Lanka next year. The US Coast Guard decommissioned the 210-foot vessel after 55 years of service, at a ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola, on March 2, 2023. Sri Lanka is scheduled to take delivery of the vesselfollowing necessary modernization to meet SLN’s operational requirements.

Navy headquarters, in a statement dated April 8, 2024, disclosed having preliminary talks with the US regarding the planned transfer of the vessel. According to that statement, the Chief of the Office of Defence Cooperation US Embassy in Colombo, Commander Sean Jin led the talks.

The transfer is likely to take placethe year following the presidential poll,expected to be conducted in Sept/Oct this year.

The SLN statement underscored the growing US-Sri Lanka relationship ahead of the presidential polls later this year, and parliamentary polls next year.

Sri Lanka previously took delivery of USCGC Courageous in 2004 (commissioned as SLNS ‘Samudura’/P 621), USCGC Sherman in 2018 (Commissioned as SLNS ‘Gajabahu’ /P 626), and USCGC Douglas Munro in 2021 (Commissioned as SLNS ‘Vijayabahu’ /P 627).

USCGC decommissioned Courageous after 33 years of service whereas USCGC Sherman and USCGC Douglas Munro served the US for 50 and 49 years, respectively.

However, bankrupt Sri Lanka should be aware of the high cost of maintaining decommissioned vessels long past their service life, especially in terms of high fuel consumption. Besides, as pointed out by experts recently, when President Wickremesinghe wanted to deploy our naval assets in support of the US-led operation to protect shipping in the Red Sea, that they would be sitting ducks in this age of missile and drone warfare. It is no secret that Australia earlier paid both our Navy and Air Force for fuel to conduct operations in support of their efforts to block illegal migration, Down Under.

Still silent on Speaker’s declaration

In spite of a controversial travel ban imposed on Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Shavendra Silva and his family in Feb 2020, over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, the US seemed to be keen on further improving relations with Sri Lanka in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster in July 2022. At the time the US declared the travel ban, the celebrated General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Task Force 1/58 Division, which played a crucial role in the final phase of the war, also held the post of Army Commander.

In the wake of the May 09/10, 2022, violence that sent shock waves across the country, then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa replaced General Silva with Vikum Liyanage, promoted to Lt. General’s rank on June 1, 2022.

Regardless of continuing controversy over the US role in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, especially against the backdrop of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s surprising but much belated declaration of direct external involvement in the violent protest campaign, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Office on April 10 divulged US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan getting in touch with his counterpart here Sagala Ratnayake, the one-time Public Security Minister.

Obviously, the US move is in line with its much touted Indo-Pacific tilt. The US wants Sri Lanka to be part of its developing strategy. Did the US find President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a hindrance to its designs in the region, hence the decision to influence an unprecedented violent public protest campaign that forced the war-time Defence Secretary out of office?

The former President, in his recently launched ‘Conspiracy to oust me from Presidency’ discussed the possibility of how the US threatened action on the human rights front may have discouraged the military from taking tangible measures to neutralize the threat posed by the violent protest campaign.

But, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government appeared to have chosen to simply ignore Speaker Abeywardena’s confirmation of US involvement, as first disclosed by National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa in late April 2023. A couple of months later, retired Navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, in his capacity as Chairman of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, confirmed lawmaker Weerawansa’s accusations.

The Bar Association’s pathetic failure to comment on the Speaker’s revelation should be examined against the backdrop of a spate of statements it issued during the public protest campaign and after, in support of those protests. In the wake of fresh controversy caused by former President Maithripala Sirisena regarding the Easter Sunday carnage, the Bar Association urged the former President to make, what it called, a full and honest ,disclosure of any sensitive information he possessed. Withholding such information, as a former head of state, would constitute a serious obstruction of justice,” the Bar Association warned.

Perhaps, the Bar Association should also reveal its stand on the Speaker’s declaration as it cannot be selective in addressing contentious issues.

Change of US strategy

The US seems to have made up its mind to proceed with Wickremesinghe-led Sri Lanka though it appeared to have earlier envisaged an interim administration, under Speaker Abeywardena, sans the former.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya-led Opposition appears to have conveniently forgotten CIA Chief William Burns visit here in Feb 2023, a few weeks before MP Weerawansa alleged US Ambassador Julie Chung’s intervention with Speaker Abeywardena. The US mission in Colombo and the government didn’t confirm or deny the CIA Chief’s visit.

Similarly, there was not a hum from our JVP comrades when the CIA Chief made that clandestine visit to Colombo 14 months ago in the dead of the night after closing off the Colombo-Katunayake expressway to all other traffic. Have they clearly turned into Business suited capitalists now, easily globetrotting like nobody’s business, while the bulk of the masses they have vowed to represent are gasping for breath under these unprecedented economic difficulties? To this day the Sri Lankan public is in the dark as to who or what came in those two giant US aircraft that brought CIA Chief Burns and his equally secretive delegation to Colombo without a word from our government or from Washington DC other than a leak here and there. The JVP-led Jathika Jana Balawegaya, too, remains silent on US interventions here. The JVP has quietly improved its relations with the US over the past few years and now enjoys friendly relations with the Superpower. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake toured the US in late Oct/early Sept., 2023. AKD toured India in early January and Canada in late March, this year. Therefore, it is not too hard to understand the change in the JVP’s overall approach. Have comrades sold us out to the devil?

Lawmaker Weerasekera was snubbed by Washington by him being denied an opportunity to join chairpersons of 17 Oversight Committees chosen for a 10-day study tour of the US, organized by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and USAID, in late Oct., 2023. Weerasekera, the former Navy Chief of Staff, retired in late 2006 after having served the Navy with an unblemished record for well over three decades. Obviously, the US found fault with MP Weerasekera for his comments critical of the US, especially in the aftermath of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster. The SLN veteran was one of the few who wanted to break up the growing protest campaign, while the West, in general, along with the NGOs they fund here, cunningly pleaded that they were peaceful protests and even called on the police and security forces not to use force against them.

Weerasekera quit on April 18, 2022, the day before Rambukkana erupted and at the time countrywide violence exploded on May 9, Prasanna Ranatunga served as Public Security Minister. Among several dozens of properties set ablaze in several parts of the country, were Ranatunga’s in the Gampaha district, the worst affected area.

US Ambassador Chung strongly and repeatedly discouraged the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government from appropriately responding to the growing protest campaign. However, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, having been elected President on July 20, 2022, by Parliament to complete the term of the ousted President Gotabaya, immediately directed the removal of those occupying the Presidential Secretariat and other government buildings. And mysteriously those who were threatening to lay down their lives for a system change simply melted away! What a staged drama?

No doubt if not for the swift action taken by President Wickremesinghe, the country could have suffered irreparable damage, with some waiting to stage a blood bath to erase Rajapaksas’ legacy. President Wickremesinghe’s action prompted some angry verbal reactions from the so-called international community to cover their nakedness and nothing more!

Similarly, the compromised Bar Association declared: “The use of the armed forces to suppress civilian protests on the very first day in office of the new President is despicable and will have serious consequences on our country’s social, economic and political stability.”

The European Union responded: “Freedom of expression proved essential to Sri Lanka’s current transition. Hard to see how severely restricting it can help in finding solutions to the current political and economic crises.”

US Ambassador Chung issued the following statement: “Deeply concerned about actions taken against protestors at Galle Face in the middle of the night. We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured.”

The then British High Commissioner stated: “Very concerned about reports from the Galle Face protest site. We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest.”

As President Wickremesinghe brought the situation under control, Ambassador Chung met the new Sri Lankan leader. Subsequently she tweeted Friday July 22 evening that she had expressed her grave concern over the “unnecessary and deeply troubling escalation of violence against protestors overnight”.

“The President and Cabinet have an opportunity and an obligation to respond to the calls of Sri Lankans for a better future,” the Ambassador said.

“This is not the time to crack down on citizens, but instead to look ahead at the immediate and tangible steps the government can take to regain the trust of the people, restore stability, and rebuild the economy,” she added.

Since then, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government hasn’t allowed public protests in Colombo. Almost every protest has been dealt with violently.

Amnesty International recently condemned the current government and police for using brute force to break up protests.

Santosh on expanded Indian role

Indian High Commissioner Santosh Jha explained how the Covid-19 epidemic and the ongoing Russia – Ukraine war paved the way for India to play a bigger role here.

Jha discussed the issue at a seminar on Defence Cooperation, with the theme “Identifying New Opportunities and Forging New Bonds” meant to promote Indian built defence equipment and explore avenues for collaboration in defence production. The event, on 10 April 2024, at Taj Samudra, attracted several Indian manufacturers. The Indian delegation was led by Anurag Bajpai, Additional Secretary (Defence Production), Ministry of Defence.

It would be pertinent to mention that Jha served at their Colombo mission during the 2007-2010 period when Sri Lanka brought the LTTE down to its knees on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon and then conducted the first post-war presidential poll.

Let me reproduce the relevant section. Jha said: “Like in other areas, we are cooperating closely on security and defence matters. Because of our geography, our security is interlinked and intertwined. And when we speak of security, we must remember that it has acquired a wider meaning than we have traditionally associated with it. After the pandemic and impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it has come to include energy, health, food and even economic security.”

The first Defence Seminar cum Exhibition was conducted on June 07, 2023, at the same venue. The Indian role here today cannot be discussed without paying attention to the despicable Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka lacked the strength at least to mention that fact even 15 years after the successful conclusion of the war, the country is yet to set the record straight at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.

None of those demanding accountability on the part of bankrupt Sri Lanka for alleged atrocities committed during the last phase of the war and purported excesses after the conclusion of the conflict, dare to question Indian intervention. India cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for what its intervention caused here though Sri Lankan leaders seemed prepared to forget the sordid past.

The issue is whether Sri Lanka would have been in the current predicament if not for the Indian intervention at the behest of assassinated Premier Indira Gandhi, whose son Rajiv Gandhi, too, was assassinated on May 21, 1991 in the midst of an Indian general election. The Indian general election is scheduled to commence on April 19, on a staggered basis, and will end on Jun 01.

US-India combined strategy

The assassination of Congress leader and former Premier at Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, 33 years ago, contributed to the gradual change of the political environment over the years, paving the way for Narendra Modi receiving premiership in May 2014. The incumbent Premier is widely expected to win a historic third term, though he is unlikely to make an impact in Tamil Nadu, regardless of his efforts to exploit the Katchatheevu issue for his advantage.

Interestingly, both Indian High Commissioner Jha and US National Security Advisor Sullivan reassured Sri Lanka on its security and wellbeing on the same day. Declaring that India’s defence exports today stood at nearly USD 2.6 billion, a ten-fold increase over the past five years, Jha urged Sri Lanka to take advantage of India’s increasing capabilities in the defence sector.

Sri Lankan Armed Forces operate a range of Indian defence equipment, including L-70 anti-aircraft guns, Indra radar, Offshore Patrol Vessels and Army training simulators. The Indian High Commission declared that India committed the supply of Floating Dock, Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and Dornier aircraft which would ensure capacity building of Sri Lanka Armed Forces.

Regardless of the considerable increase in Indian weapons exports over the years, nuclear power remains one of the largest weapons importers. According to the Swedish think-tank, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India was the world’s biggest arms importer in 2019–23, with a 9.8 percent share of all arms imports in the world.

Over the past decade, India’s dependence on Soviet Union/Russia weapons has considerably decreased against the backdrop of New Delhi joining the US-led alliance grouped against China. Whatever Sri Lanka’s perceived stand, the US and India want Sri Lanka to be part of that grouping and work meticulously at every level to ensure Sri Lanka follows the Indo-Pacific strategy. After being aligned with the US, India, over the years, increased procurement of a range of weapons systems from Israel. According to SIPRI, over the past decade, India has imported USD 2.9 billion in military equipment from Israel. In the ’80s, India opposed Sri Lanka procuring defence equipment from Israel as it sponsored several separatist Tamil terrorist groups here. Now the China factor has brought the US and India together.

The US officially announced the planned transfer of the fourth cutter on Feb 23, this year. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Rahul Verma made the announcement onboard SLNS Vijayabahu in the presence of Ambassador Chung and State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon.

Both parents of Verma, who had served as US Ambassador in New Delhi, from 2014 to 2017, are Indian migrants to the US in the early ’60s. During his visit here, Verma checked out the site of the West Container Terminal (WCT), a deep-water shipping container terminal in the Port of Colombo. The WCT, currently being constructed by Colombo West International Terminal (CWIT) Private Limited, with $553 million in financing from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). CWIT consortium includes India’s largest port operator Adani Ports and SEZ Ltd, in addition to blue chip John Keells Holdings (JKH) and Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) having minority stakes in it.

Though there hadn’t been a previous instance of DFC investing here, the US government’s development finance institution has thrown its weight behind an Adani project meant to develop the CWIT on a Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) basis for a period of 35 years.

According to a statement issued by Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited (APSEZ) in the first week of Nov 2023, when commissioned, CWIT will be the largest and deepest container terminal in Sri Lanka. “With a quay of 1,400 m length and an alongside depth of 20 m, CWIT will be equipped to handle ultra large container vessels with capacities of 24,000 TEUs, “the statement said, asserting that the new terminal’s annual cargo handling capacity is likely to exceed 3.2 million TEUs.

Taking into consideration HC Jha’s declaration that security of India and Sri Lanka is ‘interlinked and intertwined,’ the same term can quite rightly describe the overall Indo-US strategy, though they are not on the same page regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. However, the Indian stand on Gaza genocide, perpetrated by Israel, indicates that New Delhi wouldn’t do anything to undermine its relations with the Jewish State.

Shamindra Ferdinando

Shamindra Ferdinando is a Deputy Editor of a Colombo-based daily newspaper, The Island.

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