USA vs China in the Indian Ocean, 1950s-2020

Tony Donaldson. with highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

In 1943, the US tried to establish a military base in Sri Lanka when OSS chief William Donovan invoked a ruse to railroad it into existence. The details of the ruse and how it was played out is a subject for another occasion. The point to be made here is Donovan’s ruse was quickly exposed by Colin Mackenzie, the Head of Force 136 – the name given to the Special Operations Executive organisation in Asia during World War II. As a result, the British rejected Donovan’s proposal for an OSS military base. Had the US established a military base in Sri Lanka in 1943, it would very likely still be there today, asserting US influence over Sri Lanka, its culture, and inflicting great social damage on local communities.

 Banda welcomes Zhou Enlai soon after he steps off the Air India flight at Ratmalana on 31 January 1957.

Since the end of World War II, the US has sought to entrench Sri Lanka into an “America First” geopolitical ideology. The embryonic stage of this entrenching ties to Washington go back to 1950 when Ceylon began trading rubber with China (see Rohan de Soysa, 2017) which is also a subject for another time. In short, both the US and Australia were deeply troubled by the rubber trade deal with China and were more horrified when China and Sri Lanka signed the Rubber-Rice Agreement in Peking on 4 October 1952.

The view of US and Australian diplomats in Colombo in the 1950s was “how dare Ceylon trade freely with China” as revealed in a bias and slanted report written by an Australian diplomat in Colombo in 1954. The Aussie diplomat wrote: “Ceylon apparently believes that trade and diplomacy are unrelated. Ceylon seems to feel that she can, and should, trade and yet at the same time is free to hold aloof from any political implications.” These remarks are truly astonishing given the huge trade between Red China and Australia today worth billions of dollars to Australia. The rationale behind these statements was deeply flawed because in the 70 years since this report was written, there has never been a shred of evidence that trading with China has ever had political implications for Sri Lanka. China has not promoted communist ideology in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions have remained firmly solid and respected by China.

While the US and Australia were livid with Sri Lanka and China’s growing trade relations, the statement also reveals US-Australia geopolitical interests in Asia in the 1950s are still the same today.

The truth is, the trading of rubber with China, which culminated in the Rubber-Rice Agreement in 1952, brought major benefits to Sri Lanka, which is outlined in an article written by Kelegama (2002/2020).

Since WW2, Sri Lanka has preserved its democratic traditions. In over 70 years since 1950, China has never sought to impose communist-socialist ideology on Sri Lanka. While US military commanders frequently make such claims, they never provide evidence because there is no evidence.

Today, Sri Lanka and China enjoy good relations. The economic relationship between the two countries has continued to prosper. Both countries should be free to trade and cultivate economic ties without meddling from the US or their attempts to sabotage China-Sri Lanka ties to satisfy the goals of the “America First” policy – which US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, frequently reminds us in his tweets.

Pompeo put the word “first” in capitals with an exclamation mark. His “America FIRST!” serves to remind us that America’s geopolitical strategy in Asia is not about freedom of navigation or ensuring a rules-based order. It is about “America First,” and clearly reveals the US do not genuinely care about the prosperity, welfare and interests of other nations. “America First” is about countering and sabotaging China’s economic rise to ensure economic prosperity for the US. To achieve this, the US use lies and propaganda tricks to portray China as a military threat to the region. The US use words like “debt trap” and “freedom of navigation” to achieve the exact opposite. Freedom of navigation is not about the freedom of countries to ply the ocean routes fairly. It is about giving the US military freedom of navigation to police the oceans and conduct intrusive espionage on Asian countries and their leaders.

Sri Lanka is a democracy. Ideologically, its values have been allied with Western values since independence in 1948. At the same time however, Sri Lanka also joined 22 countries from Asia, Africa and the Middle East in the Bandung Conference held in Indonesia in April 1955 – the embryonic formation of what later became the Non-Aligned Movement that was formalized by the signing of the Declaration of Brijuni on 19 July 1956.

When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike came to power in 1956, he reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s neutrality by removing British air and naval bases from the island, and by establishing diplomatic ties with China and Russia. It can be said with some certainty that the US and Australia would have preferred Sir John Kotelawala to have won the 1956 elections, not Banda, who many Western diplomats in Colombo at the time considered to be a “spent force” and unlikely to win the election. They were shocked and stunned when Banda did win it.

It is worth noting that when Zhou Enlai made his historic visit to Ceylon in early 1957, as he stepped off the Air India aircraft at Ratmalana Airport in the late afternoon of 31 January with his party, he was welcomed by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, government ministers, and a crowd in the hundreds mainly in red and blue shirts. The Asian diplomatic corps also turned out in force to welcome Mr. Zhou. There were also a few representatives from Western embassies such as Britain, Spain, and The Netherlands. But notably absent from the diplomatic community coming out to greet Zhou Enlai were representatives from the diplomatic missions of the US, France, Canada and Australia. Their absence reveals the hostility these Western diplomats felt towards China and Zhou Enlai, who is fondly remembered today in China as one of the great leaders of modern China.

It is fundamental for Sri Lanka to maintain its neutrality to ensure “America First” geopolitical strategy does not interfere into the good relationship Sri Lanka has with China, or any other country for that matter. If the US, Australia and Britain respect democratic values, then Sri Lanka must be free to decide its own destiny without interference.


“Chinese “Goodwill” Mission to Ceylon,” Australian High Commission Colombo, Despatch No. 8, 17 March 1954.

Tony Donaldson 2017:  “Remembering Tony Peries. The Ceylankan, Journal 77, Vol. 20, No. 1 February 2017, pp. 6-10.

J. B. Kelegama 2002: “A Landmark Trade Pact: Rubber-Rice Deal between Sri Lanka and China 1952,” the Keynote Address at the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebrations of the historic “Rubber-Rice Pact” between Sri Lanka and China at the BMICH on 20 December 2002. Thuppahi, 23 July 2020,

“Red Carpet Welcome For Chou,” Ceylon Daily News, 1 February 1957. p. 1.

Rohan De Soysa: “Decolonisation in the Rubber Trade, 1946 to 1954. Thuppahi, 23 February 2017,

****  *****


Wijayawantha Ukwatte: China-Ceylon Rubber-Rice Pact National & International (Impact Paperback– October 10, 2014)

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One response to “USA vs China in the Indian Ocean, 1950s-2020

  1. Janaka Perera

    I agree with the writer. Had the UNP won the Parliamentary Election of 1956, the U.S. would have easily established a military base in Sri Lanka. Consequently in that Cold War era, SL would have become a willing or unwilling participant in it.
    In that period despite the rubber-rice pact with China the UNP Government was shamelessly subservient to the West. During the Bandung Summit when Sir John Kotalawala then Sri Lanka (Ceylon) PM indirectly accused China and other Communist countries of a new colonialism it irked the other delegates, especially Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru. This prompted Leftists in Sri Lanka to call Sir John බැන්ඩුන් බූරුවා (Bandung donkey).
    During the solar eclipse of 1955 Hingurakoda was the best place to observe it. But the UNP Government refused to give entry visas to a team of Soviet scientists to observe it from SL.

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