The 2-day visit of the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Colombo on October 27 in the aftermath of top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi’s meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has drawn attention to the US-Sri Lanka defense relations. It becomes particularly significant as Pompeo warned the pro-Chinese administration in Colombo that “the Chinese Communist Party is a predator” while “the United States comes in a different way — we come as a friend and a partner.” As part of strategic goal of the US to curb China’s influence in the Indian Ocean and surrounding regions, US has been intent to bolster defense cooperation with Sri Lanka. However, US-Defense cooperation has witnessed a bumpy road in the recent years due to growing interests of the competing great powers in the region – China, USA and India and opposing regime interests at the domestic level.
Due to economic downturn, the United States was seeking to balance China in the Indian Ocean by entering into partnerships with like-minded regional actors in the region. The saying of “a week is a long time in politics” has been underscored by the turn of events over the past three years. At that time, Washington had two major reasons for remaining in the Indian Ocean. It sought, first, to maintain the security of the energy products that were being shipped from the Middle East via the Indian Ocean. Second, it aimed at balancing China’s increasing presence in the Ocean. Washington’s dependence on its energy imports from the Middle East has gradually decreased, but under the Trump Administration it emphasized balancing and even countering China in the Indian Ocean. Although its economy is now on the decline, Washington still wishes to create an alliance of sorts with regional actors to further her interests in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka makes an ideal partner for the United States in that regard. The country’s then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeking to end its civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, sought China’s help. After the war ended, China lent Sri Lanka vast sum of fund, loans that the country could not service. China consequently gained control of Hambantota Port on a lease for 99 years. The port, it is generally believed, forms part of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy designed to contain India and, simultaneously, forms part of its Belt and Road Initiative. To some extent, it also gives China the ability to ensure the security of its vital energy imports from the Middle East. If Washington could turn Colombo against Beijing, therefore, it would be a body blow to the latter’s prestige and standing in the region.
There are other reasons why Washington would like to have a military base in Sri Lanka. First and foremost, a base would enable the USA to keep an eye on Chinese maritime traffic passing close to Sri Lanka and connecting with the Middle East and Africa. It could also reduce China’s influence in the region by keeping watch over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which China could use to pipe oil and liquefied natural gas from Iran to its western provinces, so as to mitigate the US and Indian threats to its energy shipments using tankers.
There is, additionally, another reason for acquiring a base in Sri Lanka. The current US base in the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was acquired by forcibly displacing the native Chagossian people, has recently received unwanted and unfavourable international attention. There is the possibility that the Island and its base could be returned to the Chagos people. If that occurs, the US would require another base to allow it to retain its influence in the Indian Ocean. It is likely that Washington will have simultaneously approached the Maldives and Seychelles as well as Sri Lanka in that regard.
Nevertheless, the US has been mindful of growing Chinese involvement with Sri Lanka for long. Initially, it tried to replicate Chinese investment packages with its own Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a compact to grant worth 480 million US dollars to assist in the modernization of Sri Lanka’s transport and land management sectors without parliamentary approval. Washington has been trying to pass the MCC compact grant for Sri Lanka since December 2016 during President Sirisena’s government, who kept the issue continuing for the next Rajapaksa Administration to handle and got parliamentary approval in April 2019 before the presidential election.
During a media event convened by cabinet spokesmen Minister Bandula Gunawardena first informed about the status of the now controversial MCC when he disclosed the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The Government of Sri-Lanka has entered into the defense agreement called SOFA, considered controversial when an American ally, the Philippines abrogated the pact with US. SOFA establishes a framework through which US military personnel operate in foreign countries.
The first US agreement with Sri Lanka was in 1995 for joint exercises and other official duties. In 2007, the then Sri Lankan defense secretary and incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed the first US-Sri Lanka Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) for a period of 10 years. Indian American Atul Keshap who completed his successful ambassadorship to Sri Lanka and Maldives on the 15th of July 2018 supervised the entire secret negotiations on ACSA and SOFA. The previous ACSA (2007-2017) facilitated the exchange of non-lethal supplies but the terms of the new ACSA (2017) remained unclear.
Reportedly, the new US-Sri Lanka ACSA was discretely signed in August 2017 during then President Maithripala Sirisena’s government without parliamentary approval and public discussion. It remained unconfirmed whether SOFA was secretly approved during the last days of Sirisena’s regime or Rajapaksa’s. In fact, the signing of the SOFA and ACSA demonstrates a highly confidential and secret process that caused widespread criticism and speculations.
The SOFA, that became effective in 2017, signed 83-page ACSA. According to a public statement by the American Ambassador Alaina Teplitz, the agreement would allow US forces to conduct combined security operations. She stated that such steps were very important to strengthen the security of the country as well as strengthen other sectors. However, she did not disclose what other sectors were.
Some of the salient but controversial features of the US-Sri Lanka SOFA include:
- The freedom to move freely of the US Department of Defense vessels and vehicles within the sovereign territory of Sri Lanka.
- Personnel and contractors working with US Department of Defense will not be liable to prosecution under Sri Lankan laws and will not be restricted to move within specified areas. They can enter and leave Sri Lanka without identification of their actual designations and roles.
- It will not be possible for Sri Lankan authorities to inspect whether or not any vessel/aircraft/vehicle is involved in carrying unauthorized materials.
- The agreement also calls for exemptions from any inspections, licenses, customs duties, taxes and other restrictions or charges assessed within Sri Lanka as well as freedom from boarding and inspection, which means no local law enforcement or military authority including Sri Lanka Navy or Coastguard would have a say in U.S. military vessels or their troops nor be subjected to local laws while in Sri Lankan territory.
- The US military will also operate in telecom frequencies and parallel through the state, which could be used for operational planning and coordination.
- Since the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and agencies will not have visibility into these military communications, Sri Lanka could not be used as an important base for combat operations planning.
- The US Government will have access to real estate records including those, which are listed by China.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka eyed benefits from the MCC project. It may be mentioned that the project proposal for the compact was submitted to the MCC Board in November, 2017 and was approved by the MCC Board in April, 2019, just a few days after the disastrous Easter Sunday bombings. Curiously, the MCC was negotiated secretly defying persistent public demands for transparency. A draft of the MCC was at last published on the website of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Finance on November 15, 2020, just 11 days before presidential elections. The amounts allocated are to be spent in a phased out way and careful reading of the clauses of the agreement will show that the MCC presence will not for just 5 years but likely to remain indefinitely, since the MCC compact grants are concerned with improvement of transportation and infrastructure.
However, this commitment went in vain, as on December 2020, the Board of Directors discontinued the $480 million Compact with the Government of Sri Lanka. The proposed compact, which the Board approved in April 2019, was designed to reduce poverty through economic growth. It would have reduced traffic congestion and air pollution in Colombo and improved public transportation for millions of Sri Lankans who travel by bus. It would have upgraded provincial roads to help farmers get their goods to market and provided secure land titles to smallholder farmers and other Sri Lankan landholders.
Since the United States has failed to renew its Status of Armed Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Sri Lanka and fell short of finalizing its $480 million Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) accord, China has successfully amplified its efforts to cement economic relationship with Sri Lanka. Through a financial “art of war,” China has become Sri Lanka’s unfailing economic and diplomatic partner in need.
Sri Lanka connects western and eastern Indian Oceans making it a desired military logistics facility for regional maritime powers. It is still uncertain whether the SOFA has been concluded but the cabinet spokesmen certainly suggested that this was the case and no denial or retraction was made. The US position seems to be more determined and promising in terms of maintaining the agreements signed with Sri Lanka to counter China. At the same time, though it is quite a difficult challenge for Sri Lanka to choose one at a time or more precisely to choose US over China, as China has been there for Sri Lanka for long, it is to see how US-Sri Lanka defense cooperation works out in the future. Observers argue that Pompeo’s mission to persuade Sri Lanka away from its strategic alliance with Beijing will continue to fail without major financial and military concessions for the pending MCC and SOFA accords from Washington. With the change of the Trump Administration in the USA, their bilateral defense relations will not deviate from the fundamental strategic goal of the USA to reduce China’s growing influence in the region in general and Sri Lanka, in particular, however, challenging it might look.