Lanka walks tightrope in Indian Ocean Political-Naval Manoeuvres

Shamindra Ferdinando,  in The Island, 2 August 2017, where the title is “China makes headway as Lanka walks tightrope

Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) on July 22, 2017, took delivery of an Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) built by the Government of India owned Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL).

On the invitation of Navy Chief Vice Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, President Maithripala Sirisena will commission the vessel as SLNS Sayurala (P 623) today (August 2) at the Eastern Container Terminal, Colombo harbour. It’ll be the first occasion a President participates in such a ceremony, in wartime or peacetime Sri Lanka. The AOPV is fitted for 76 mm main weapon though the SLN is exploring the possibility of mounting MBRL with stabilized platform developed by Research and Development. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be among the invitees.

A second AOPV is being built, for SLN, by the same enterprise. SLN will take delivery of the second vessel next year. The first brand new ship, ever acquired by Sri Lanka, at a cost of over USD 66 mn, arrived at the Colombo harbor, on Friday (July 28), amidst political turmoil over the finalisation of a deal with China, on the Hambantota port, and the proposed Sri Lanka-India deal, on the Trincomalee oil tank farm, as well as several other projects. Sri Lanka and China signed the agreement on July 29, in spite of President Maithripala Sirisena suggesting the signing should be delayed, at least by few days, pending consensus on the agreement.

Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has compared the Hambantota deal (with China Merchant Port) with South Asia Gateway Terminals (SAGT) and the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT), though trade unions, opposed to the Hambantota project, think otherwise. India is widely believed to be interested in the East Container Terminal, still under construction, in accordance with the overall Colombo port expansion project.

During the previous Rajapaksa administration, India sought US help to ascertain the status of Chinese involvement in the Hambantota port project, even before actual construction commenced in January 2008. It would be important to mention that at the time China pledged funds for the project the armed forces had been struggling on the Vanni front. The India-US talks, on the Hambantota port, came to light when WikiLeaks released classified US diplomatic cable, dated April 26, 2007, originating from New Delhi, based on views expressed by the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry, Mohan Kumar.

Against the backdrop of simmering controversy over Chinese and Indian projects here, it would be pertinent to examine an unprecedented post-war bilateral agreement between Sri Lanka and India for the building of two AOPVs, at the GSL, located on the west coast of India.

Sri Lanka and India finalized the agreement on February 17, 2014, several years after the conclusion of the war. The then Navy Chief Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage told the writer that AOPVs were offered through a credit line and they certainly met Sri Lanka’s requirement for offshore patrolling capacity. According to Colombage, they are slightly bigger than Sri Lanka’s largest OPV, also acquired from India years ago.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had received an assurance from former Indian National Security Advisor, M. K. Narayan (January 2005-January 2010), in respect of their readiness to sell two OPVs during the administration of Manmohan Singh. However, the actual signing of the agreement had taken place on February 17, 2014, during the tenure of Narayan’s successor, Shivshankar Menon (January 2010-May 2014). But, Menon’s successor, incumbent Ajit Doval, on behalf of India, demanded from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to cancel the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project – Colombo Port City. India also 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. India wanted all major Chinese funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told the writer that Doval once told him: “Sri Lanka is a small country, you don’t need such development projects.”

Menon on Rajapaksa brothers

The war-winning Rajapaksa government had been under heavy Indian pressure to acquire Sri Lanka’s defence ‘needs’, including training and intelligence from India – though years ago New Delhi worked overtime to deprive successive Sri Lankan governments of the wherewithal to fight the LTTE. India seriously feared former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s relationship with China. India believed the war-winning president pursued foreign policy strategy severely inimical to its interests, though wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa responded positively to India’s concerns.

Former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon (January 2010-May 2014), in his memoirs, titled ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy,’ alleged that the Rajapaksas in May 2014, had violated repeated assurances given in respect that there wouldn’t be a permanent Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka and the country would look to India for most of its military training and intelligence needs. “At no stage was exclusivity sought or promised. And, realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity,” Menon, who had been India’s High Commissioner, in Colombo, years ago, revealed.

Interestingly, the production of the first AOPV had commenced on May 15, 2014, soon after Narendra Modi swept into power in the April 7 – May 12, 2014, general election held on a staggered basis. The keel of the vessel had been laid on September 10, 2014, and was ceremonially launched on June 10, 2016.

Sri Lanka and India reached an agreement on AOPVs in spite of the latter throwing its weight behind US-led efforts to haul Sri Lanka before a hybrid war crimes court. Sri Lanka had no option but to accept the Indian offer to build two AOPVs, similar to those currently in service with the Indian Coast Guard. In fact, the then Defence Secretary Rajapaksa had signed the agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka and it was part of the overall project meant to enhance Sri Lanka -India relationship.

With the acquisition of AOPV, the SLN now has four vessels, of similar type, namely SLNS Sayura (Sukanya class P 620), SLNS Samudura (formerly of the US Coast Guard P 621), SLNS Sagara (Vikram class P622) and the latest addition SLNS Sayurala (P 623). All three OPVs had been involved in successful daredevil operations on the high seas to hunt down LTTE floating arsenals during 2007. In addition to the above mentioned vessels, locally built SLNS Jayasagara is also categorized as an OPV, though being comparatively smaller than other OPVs in service. The LTTE sank the other Jayasagara class vessel, SLNS Sagarawardena, on the night of September 19, 1994, off Mannar, during an unofficial truce between the Kumaratunga administration and the LTTE.

An ambitious SLN project

Sri Lanka Navy’s Maritime Strategy 2025 comprehensively dealt with the country’s requirement, in respect of offshore patrolling capacity, to ensure protection of seas coming under its purview, and a range of other issues. Prepared and developed during the current Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne’s tenure, the document asserted Sri Lanka’s requirement for 20 ships (OPVs and other types) by 2025, a daunting task. The proposed 20 vessel navy included eight currently in services. The eight included four OPVs (SLNS Sayura, SLNS Samudura, SLNS Sagara and SLNS Jayasagara) two Fast Missile Vessels (SLNS Suranimala and SLNS Nandimitra) and two Fast Patrol Boats received from Australia. The remaining 12 expected to be acquired over the next couple of years comprises four OPVs, including the AOPV commissioned today, two Fast Missile Vessels, two Frigates, two Fast Patrol Boats and two Corvettes.

It would be interesting to know how Sri Lanka intended to acquire 12 more ships, of different categories, over a period of eight years. Would SLN look for only Indian built ships or examine the possibility of acquiring vessels from different suppliers. Speculation is rife that Sri Lanka may get an opportunity to secure two more vessels from the US. The possibility of Sri Lanka receiving Japanese, Russia, Chinese vessels in addition to another one from India cannot be ruled out.

Had Sri Lanka built up the required naval capability, and adopted a result oriented strategy at a much earlier phase of the conflict, the LTTE wouldn’t have survived so long.

In fact, the SLN document acknowledged how its failure to take tangible measures, at a much earlier stage, after having recognized the LTTE threat, resulted in the three decades long war.

Twice president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is on record as having told The Jane’s Fighting Ships that the war wouldn’t have lasted so long if the SLN succeeded in blocking LTTE supplies. However, over eight years after the conclusion of the war, Sri Lanka’s defence as well as foreign policy needs, should be examined with the US-India-Japan combine seeking stronger ties with Sri Lanka against the backdrop of growing Chinese presence here.

The growing US-India-Japan maritime cooperation, and their common stand on the South China Sea situation, will certainly have a bearing on Sri Lanka. In June, this year, Sri Lankan military personnel received training in two Dornier aircraft, belonging to the Indian Navy. The training exercises were carried out in the West and Southwest Coast of the Sri Lankan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from 19th to 22nd June. US-India military cooperation today is undoubtedly at its zenith with Modi – once refused entry into the US over his alleged role in the massacre of about 1,000 Muslims in Hindu riots in 2002. The US, in 2005, turned down a request for a US visa by Modi, the leader of India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and then chief minister of Gujarat. Modi was not welcome. In a complete turnaround by US, Modi was subsequently feted at the White House by Obama during a two-day official visit to Washington. He also addressed a joint session of Congress – a sign of high favour.

Chinese projects seem to be on track much to the disappointment of India and Western powers.

Recent finalisation of the agreement on Hambantota port meant that the change of government, in January 2015, hadn’t thwarted Beijing’s project in Sri Lanka.

Although, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had suspended the China-funded USD 1.4 bn Colombo Port City project, immediately after the January 2015 presidential polls, intense Chinese pressure compelled Colombo to eat humble pie. The project resumed in January 2016.

The mega project commenced in September of 2014 with the participation of Chinese president Xi Jinping on the invitation of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Chinese leader’s presence underscored just how important the project is to China.

The Port City agreement had been initially signed between Sri Lanka and China Communications Construction Company, in Nov 2013.

Now, China has secured agreement on the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease thereby seriously undermining the efforts of those who had been seeking to restrain China.

Last November, China invited former President Rajapaksa for talks in a bid to prevent the Joint Opposition from spearheading protests against the Hambantota project. Having accompanied the former President, ex-External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris explained that the Rajapaksa-led JO wouldn’t oppose the project if China and Sri Lanka stick to the original plan worked out during the previous administration.

US on Indian role

A few weeks after President Rajapaksa’s ouster, the then US president Barack Obama revealed existence of a common US-India stand on Sri Lanka. Obama’s statement should be studied against the backdrop of US interference in the Sri Lankan presidential polls. The US intervention, in the run up to the January 2010 presidential polls was meant to help the then retired General Sarath Fonseka to beat President Rajapaksa. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, the entire world know how US brought pressure on the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to throw its weight behind General Fonseka, in spite of the outfit accusing his forces of killing over 40,000 Tamil civilians. The US also put pressure on the SLMC to join a coalition, comprising the UNP, JVP, TNA. The US plan proved unsuccessful in 2010. However, a similar strategy succeeded in January 2015.

Today, the US media is preoccupied with Russian intervention in last presidential polls. Addressing a distinguished gathering at the Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, on 27 January 2015, Obama declared India could play a “positive” role in the region, from Burma to Sri Lanka, reiterating “that with power comes responsibility. Obviously, Obama had conveniently forgotten how India sponsored terrorism in Sri Lanka, in the ‘80s, in accordance with its overall foreign policy response to Cold War era US threat, as well as domestic political reasons. Today, India and the US are best of friends, with India developing an extremely close relationship with Israel, as well as Japan.

US President Obama said there was a new hope for democracy in Sri Lanka. Obama wouldn’t have anticipated the administration, which the US and India helped to install, in Colombo, would be so unpopular it put off local government polls by over two years and is now exploring ways and means of postponing Sabaragamuwa, Eastern and North Central Provincial Councils polls.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section released by the US State Department: “I believe that if we’re going to be true global partners, then our two nations must do more around the world together. So, to ensure international security and peace, multilateral institutions created in the 20th century have to be updated for the 21st. And that’s why I support a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member. (Applause.) Of course, as I’ve said before, with power comes responsibility. In this region, India can play a positive role in helping countries forge a better future, from Burma to Sri Lanka, where today there’s new hope for democracy. With your experience in elections, you can help other countries with theirs. With your expertise in science and medicine, India can do more around the world to fight disease and develop new vaccines, and help us end the moral outrage of even a single child dying from a preventable disease. Together, we can stand up against human trafficking and work to end the scourge of modern day slavery. (Applause.)”

India always opposed Chinese role in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka experienced severe difficulties due to Indian policy. During Kumaratunga’s presidency, India thwarted a bid to secure state-of-the-art Chinese radar to counter possible threat posed by ‘Air Tigers.’ Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda and Gotabhaya, acquired Chinese 3 D radar only after ‘Air Tigers’ mounted attacks at the height of eelam War IV.

India also opposed Sri Lanka setting up a China-managed Aircraft Overhaul Wing at the China Bay SLAF base, Trincomalee, years ago. Subsequently, the SLAF established the facility at the Katunayake air base where the Chinese were engaged in overhauling jets and trainer aircraft.

Importance of ACSA

Whether Sri Lanka likes it or not and regardless who held power, the government cannot ignore US concerns and sustain relationship. Remember, Sri Lanka and the United States, in May 2007, signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), valid for 10 years, to facilitate transfer and exchange of logistics supplies, support and re-fuelling services.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the then American Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert Blake signed the agreement. The pact paved the way for interoperability.

A statement by the U.S. embassy said the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) would allow the U.S. and Sri Lanka to transfer and exchange logistics supplies, support, and re-fuelling services during peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations and joint exercises.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government recently declared its intention to extend the agreement. The writer feels Sri Lanka should extend ACSA in spite of some parties opposing it. Recently, JO MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara claimed that those who had been opposed to ACSA received an assurance from President Rajapaksa soon after the signing of the agreement that the agreement is irrelevant. MP Nanayakkara flayed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s decision to extend ACSA, which the writer believes is certainly a move in the right direction. The US giving leadership to anti-Sri Lanka Geneva Resolution30/1 adopted on Oct 1, 2015 shouldn’t have bearing on US-Sri Lanka relations. But, Sri Lanka’s policy shouldn’t be at the expense of any other country, particularly China, an all-weather friend like Pakistan.

A visit undertaken by the US Pacific Fleet transport ship USNS Fall River, in early March, this year, underscored the pivotal importance of Sri Lanka adopting a sensible policy towards foreign powers. The vessel participated in Pacific Partnership goodwill mission to Hambantota, and its environs, from March 6 to 18. Military and civil personnel from Japan, Australia and Sri Lanka held joint exercises through the 12-day mission.

Since the conclusion of the war, in May 2009, Western powers had been working overtime to undermine the Rajapaksa administration. India, too, felt that President Rajapaksa pursued China friendly policy. No less a person than Shivshankar Menon has alleged that the former President was the direct beneficiary of Chinese money – a very serious accusation which the former president, or his advisors, should have responded to immediately. They haven’t done so yet. Menon said in his memoirs: “I found that as the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya, had a clear view of Sri Lanka’s interests, one that was compatible with ours. Immediately after the war, he reassured Indian troika about the nature of Sri Lanka’s defence relationship with China, and helped Indian companies reenter the reconstruction of Colombo. Security was Gotabhaya’s preoccupation, which made him sensitive to India’s concerns, while his brother Mahinda was much more compliant with Chinese demands, having built a political machine on Chinese money (emphasis mine)

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