Athulathmudali to Wickremasinghe: Logistics Hub is One Pillar in USA’s Strategic Design for Sri Lanka

Daya Gamage in Asian Tribune, 12 April 2019, where the title reads At 2020 Sri Lanka elections, stakes are high for the U.S.”

Washington interests toward countries and regions work in very strange ways. Its national interest is foremost. Maintaining the existing regional hegemony, or designs seeking to penetrate into regions it once dominated but over time slipped out of, are deeply associated with that foremost national interest.

Sri Lanka knowingly or unknowingly tasted it in 1987, and now this dimension is very clearly visible over the these two years when Washington woke up like Rip van Winkle to combat Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific region and took stpes to transform Sri Lanka into a U.S. military hub.

The Asian Tribune totally agrees with the official statement issued by the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo in February [2019] that Washington had no interest in opening military bases in Sri Lanka, but this Online newspaper took note of when it justified its military presence in the island nation to make it a ‘military hub’: a progressive step beyond that of a military base.

Washington worked in a very strange manner – comprehending its primary interest – in 1987 when the Sri Lankan military forces were in an intense battle in the Vadamarachchi region in the north against the Tamil Tigers.

The manner in which Washington endeavored to protect its national security interests and foreign-policy objectives could be seen very similar in 1987 to that of the interest it has developed toward the incumbent Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration.

Early in 1987, the Government of Sri Lanka placed orders at several U.S. arms manufacturing companies to purchase military equipment to strengthen combat capabilities of its air force and army. Sri Lanka desperately needed this combat military equipment, one of which was a particular devise that could be fitted to combat aircraft to discharge precision attacks on Tamil Tiger fighting cadre while minimizing civilian casualties.

The Sri Lankan military during this period was on an offensive against the lethal fighting cadre of the separatist LTTE in the Vadamarachchi region; the Tigers were controlling an impressive percentage of the the northern and eastern provinces.

The then national security minister Lalith Athulathmudali was giving the political leadership to the northern operation while General Denzil Kobbekaduwa was heading the military offensive. Both wanted minimum civilian casualties hence the placement of orders to purchase the particular device, among others, that could discharge aerial attacks with some degree of accuracy minimizing collateral damage.

The American arms manufactures declined the purchase orders citing the U.S. Department of Defense directives.

Previously in 1984, a classified CIA/State Department report had categorically professed that no military assistance should be given to Sri Lanka and no arms transfer should be made as those could be used against the minority Tamils which could make Washington in a difficult position to deal with minorities in other countries. The arms manufacturers were adhering to the directive of the US Department of Defense based on a vital foreign-policy decision pronounced in this classified document.

Following the failure to obtain much needed military equipment, Sri Lanka’s National Security Council met in a session, chaired by President J.R. Jayewardene. When the discussion turned to the Northern military operation against the Tamil Tigers, National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali took the podium with extreme rage.

He apprised the attendees of the military campaign in the northern region, and it was at this stage that he burst out with extreme fury. Athulathmudali condemned and denounced the policy attitude of the United States toward Sri Lanka’s counter-terrorist operation when he went in full blast against Washington accusing it of undermining the operation against a lethal separatist movement in blocking the arms transfer to Sri Lanka by American manufacturers.

He denounced the United States and questioned its motives in barring his country from purchasing military equipment from private American arms manufactures which he said is exclusively used to counter military and territorial advances of the separatist Tamil Tigers: the issue of national security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity arose.

When the American ambassador learned a few days later, through its political office, exactly what transpired at the National Security Council and Athulathmudali’s outrage, he was visibly disturbed; so was Washington when it learned about the political upheaval that centered around its ‘favorite political personality’ through the classified cable commented and signed by the ambassador.

Lalith Athulathmudali was Washington’s ‘indisputable potential leader’ in Sri Lanka. Washington was nurturing him toward Sri Lanka’s presidency. His affinity toward overall American foreign policy was no secret to both the Colombo diplomatic mission and Washington policymakers. Sri Lanka had a U.S.-friendly administration and Washington wanted it remained that way. The Athulathmudali factor was the prime consideration for Washington to take a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn to restore Sri Lanka’s military requirements before the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) arrived in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

Fast forward to 2017-2019 America’s pivot to the Asian-Pacific region

February this year, US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philips Davidson told the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee during a Congressional hearing that “The United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) cooperation with the Sri Lankan military centers on building capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as humanitarian de-mining, medical assistance, and peacekeeping operations”, a mixed package.

On February 14 the visiting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Thomas J. Vajda declared in Colombo that Washington has planned to direct US$ 39 million to Sri Lanka to support maritime security, freedom of navigation, and maritime awareness as part of its Bay of Bengal initiative. He then said this would bolster humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief capabilities in South Asia. “Our goal, both in terms of our bilateral relationship and our engagement under the Indo-Pacific framework, Sri Lanka, as a country that is empowered and enabled through its partnership with the US,” he said.

Thomas Vajda of the State Department holds an acting and junior position, [but] is close to the decision-makers in Washington as his responsibilities stretches from ‘Security and Transnational Affairs’ in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs overseeing ‘economic and security issues, resource and strategic planning, and Congressional relations’ across all countries of South and Central Asia.

Admiral Davidson spelled this out very clearly at the February 12 US Senate Arms Services Committee hearing the importance of obtaining logistic support for confrontational purposes. He said, “The United States’ network of allies and partners is our principal advantage against any adversary. USINDOPACOM depends upon the collective capabilities of our allies and partners to address the challenges to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The most obvious point—one made abundantly clear in the National Security Strategy—is that whatever we do, we must do it with our allies and partners. The keys to our bilateral and multilateral relationships are communication, information-sharing, and interoperability”.

He further assured at the Congressional hearing “USINDOPACOM’s goal in South Asia is to create and seize opportunities to broaden critical partnerships to ensure shared domains remain open to all. In conjunction with India’s contributions to regional security, these actions will prevent adversaries from establishing an effective military presence in the Indian Ocean that threaten the security of vital commerce and continued economic growth and development. As a result, the regional states will be able to reduce internal conflicts, respond to regional security challenges, and resist adversaries’ military and economic coercion”.

Referring to Sri Lanka Admiral Davidson said (Quote) “Sri Lanka remains a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian Ocean, and our military-to-military relationship continues to strengthen. However, political turmoil and ethnic tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations remain drivers of instability and potential obstacles to continued growth in our partnership. Moreover, Sri Lanka has handed over the deep water port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease due to its mounting debts to China, which has caused international concern. Despite the political upheaval, it is in our interests to continue military collaboration and cooperation with Sri Lankan Forces. USINDOPACOM cooperation with the Sri Lankan Military centers on building capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as humanitarian demining, medical assistance, and peacekeeping operations. Increasing navy-to-navy engagement with Sri Lanka will be a USINDOPACOM focus in 2019. The Sri Lankan Navy is a well-trained and professional force with the potential to contribute to multi-lateral maritime interoperability in the Indian Ocean. The recent transfer of an excess U.S. Coast Guard cutter to Sri Lanka in August 2018, along with additional platforms from Japan and India, provide the Sri Lankan Navy greater capabilities to contribute to regional maritime domain awareness initiatives. Going forward, it is necessary to sustain engagement with Sri Lanka, particularly the navy, and construct a multi-lateral approach to capacity building with like-minded partners to rapidly enhance the Sri Lankan Navy’s capabilities.”

A defense and foreign policy expert in U.S. Heritage Foundation recently opined, Sri Lankan-U.S. ties have flourished since President Rajapaksa was ousted in 2015. Sri Lanka has become a new logistic hub for the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean. U.S. strategy must deepen diplomatic and military ties with Sri Lanka, contrast the U.S. and Chinese development models, and improved regional cooperation.

The Heritage Foundation dispatch stated that since 2018, Sri Lanka has been serving as a new Indian Ocean logistic hub for the U.S. Navy.

Sri Lanka began welcoming U.S. naval visits again after a five-year hiatus and has hosted over one dozen U.S. navy ships since then. In 2017 a U.S. aircraft carrier visited Sri Lanka for the first time in over three decades. Same year, Sri Lanka was included for the first time in the Pacific Partnership mission, the “largest annual multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific. Again in 2017, USINDOPACOM conducted its first Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise with the Sri Lankan navy. In 2018, Sri Lanka was included in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific exercise for the first time, observing from Australian vessels. Again in 2018, the Trump Administration expanded an existing program to provide maritime security assistance to South Asian nations, making Sri Lanka and Bangladesh eligible for equipment, supplies and training assistance.

The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act signed by President Trump on 31 December 2018 specifically calls for “expanding cooperation with democratic partners in South Asia, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

It should be highlighted here that a new arrangement between the United States and Sri Lanka was reached in August 2018 subsequently when the U.S. has begun to resupply naval vessels in the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka facilities. In January 2019, the USS John Stennis aircraft carrier was resupplied using the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) at Colombo.

Similar operations were carried out to resupply U.S. Navy ships from BIA in August 2018 and from the airport in Trincomalee in December 2018.

A delegation of the (US) Heritage Foundation analysts travelled to Sri Lanka in October 2018 for meetings with senior political and military officials, and it was revealed a developed appetite for even more robust military and strategic cooperation with the United States. The Heritage Foundation officials have suggested to Washington that the U.S. should seek new arrangements to use Hambantota Port as a logistic hub as it has done with Colombo Port.

The Rajapaksa Factor

In light of these developments the question Washington faces at present is: Can the U.S. work with the Rajapaksas if they return to power? U.S. diplomats who have served in Sri Lanka point a bleak picture: the Rajapaksa track record is lamentable; to advance a narrow agenda, the Rajapaksas often worked against the interests of the United States, of Sri Lanka minorities.

Washington policy developers and policymakers do feel that Sri Lanka presents a model test case for the Trump Administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy while bilateral ties have flourished in recent years precisely because Sri Lanka has become freer and more open since Rajapaksa’s ouster.

In the light of this development, Washington has high stakes in Sri Lanka to [prevent] this South Asian nation [falling] out of its grip. Sri Lanka, since the ouster of the Rajapaksa Administration and the advent of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe regime, has come within Washington’s orbit in its larger Indo-Pacific military design. The United States’ foremost focus at all times was its national interest and global security interest. Its maneuvering and machinations at policy-level is to maintain those sacred interests. It was this mind-set that Washington promoted a Athulathmudali presidency and lifted the arms embargo in 1987 to facilitate its ‘favored son’. If this is how Washington’s mind-set works, will Washington accept a regime change in Sri Lanka in 2020 when it has high stakes in the region?

The Asian Tribune has had many dialogues and discourses with current and retired policy-framers in Washington since the October (2018) constitutional upheaval which led to a fifty-day chaos in Sri Lanka. Three days after Mahinda Rajapaksa was installed as prime minister displacing Ranil Wickremasinghe, a current state department official and another retired person accurately gave the [a statistical summary of the] legislative support [that] both men had. In a previous Asian Tribune report a question was raised whether the ‘remaining Liberals’ in the state department would allow the Rajapaksas to return to power. Their mind-set would say otherwise: major financial corruption; serious civil and human rights violations, including murder of critical journalists; ethnic populism that has widened the ethnic divide and hampering post-war reconciliation; compromising Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by accepting loans from China that the GSL cannot service and that resulted in China being accorded strategic concessions.

Washington works in strange and curious ways.

***  ***

A NOTE:  Daya Gamage was a Foreign Service Political Specialist at the United States Department of State working at its diplomatic mission in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He received the highest State Department award in 1989 for his ‘Excellent Performance’. He now lives in the United States, and currently the US Bureau Chief and Political research-analyst for the Online daily newspaper Asian Tribune. He published a book two years ago entitled  ‘Tamil Tigers’ Debt To America: US Foreign-Policy Adventurism’ (Amazon) on the foundations provided by his understandings derived from his services within the US Federal Government.

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