Ahead of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's much talked–about China visit, post facto in particular, he had mentioned a larger Indian Ocean role for the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) to protect global sea–routes. In Beijing later, he was quoted as hailing his hosts’ ‘dialogue–based’ approach to resolving the ‘South China Sea issue’, between his hosts and her immediate neighbours.
“The Sri Lanka Navy will have to play a role in protecting the sea–routes across the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the sea off Banda Aceh and the Strait of Malacca. We will have to prepare for that,” the PM said at the Marine Naval Academy at Trincomalee. “It will be necessary to safeguard the Indian Ocean in particular, as international trade will be affected if a ship runs into trouble there,” the PM was quoted as saying on the occasion.
In doing so, according to media reports, PM Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka would purchase all the necessary equipment, including ships and aircraft, needed for the navy to play the international role. The country’s GDP should be increased fourfold in order to generate funds for this purpose, local media reports quoted him in the matter.
The PM explained that the GDP would be increased by developing international trade. “We will go in for economic agreements with China, Europe, the Middle East and the East African region to get international markets for Sri Lankan goods,” he added, as if by way of being thoughtful and explanation, on where from the massive funds for the purpose would come from.
This is not the first time that Wickremesinghe has referred to a larger role for the navy. He had said so, as the first head of the host government to inaugurate the 2015 edition of the annual, post–war ‘Galle Dialogue’. On neither occasion, he referred to ‘Somali piracy’ and the like, which many non–regional players, starting with the US and later China, as to why ‘ship there run into trouble’.
Ranil did not use the phraseology, but he was referring to a ‘blue water’ navy for the nation. Before him, under the predecessor Rajapaksa regime, then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, was the first one to speak of a ‘Blue Water’ capability in the future.
Gota too had mentioned it more than once, but did not elaborate even as much as PM Ranil has done now. It also implies policy–continuity, with or without change, as the case may be, despite regime–change. Translated, it could imply a ‘national consensus’ for on this score too, like on the China front.
It’s for Sri Lanka, and not third nations, including the larger Indian neighbour, to decide what is good for it, nearer home and otherwise. It is also not about how much of navy Sri Lanka needs — why, where, when and how. Yet, the nation may need to think where and how it is headed — and why it should do so, at all.
Sri Lanka is an island–nation, yes, but it does not have noticeable adversaries in the neighbourhood or afar. It should thus be asking itself why it should require a blue–water navy of the kind that Gota and Ranil now at a higher-level in the Sri Lankan government/State apparatus have said.
In his Galle Dialogue–2015 speech, PM Ranil also referred to the US as the ‘elephant in the room’ — in the Indian Ocean naval context. That is to say, littoral nations and others cannot wish away the large US naval presence in their neighbourhood waters.This is so even if some littoral nations may not have US military bases on their soil. Some, including Sri Lanka and Maldives, and just recently, India, in the inter-linked immediate neighbourhood, also have ACSA–kind of military-type agreements with lesser teeth.
The West had thought Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa was getting too close to China for their geo–strategic comfort as much as geo–economic priorities and preferences. The Indian strategic community had expressed continual concerns about the China–funded Hambantota port project, then the Mattala airport, and more recently the Colombo port city.
Of greater relevance in the immediate context should be the Rajapaksa regime permitting Chinese submarines to wade through Sri Lankan waters, not far away from India, and also stay put in Sri Lankan ports for a few days. But Sri Lanka did not have any direct problem. Even the UNP Opposition at the time referred to the ‘Indian concerns’, not any of their own viz their own nation and its waters.
As an island–nation, a pearl–drop in the larger Indian Ocean expanse, Sri Lanka has location advantage as a trade and transit–route. Every government, whatever be the political affiliation or international outlook, has sought to explore/exploit the same, as nations are bound to do — one time or the other, one way or the other. In Beijing, the PM referred to Mahinda R’s (economic) ‘hub’ on Sri Lanka’s maritime policy. He did not seem to have clarified if it stopped with the ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ plan on the maritime-trade front, or also included the ‘naval hub’ mentioned therein. As it turned out, the Rajapaksa regime had enunciated and experimented with (viz the submarines’ adventure/mis–adventure).
It is another matter if Sri Lanka would have to police the Indian Ocean, as Secretary Gota’s ‘Blue-water’ reference and PM Ranil’s subsequent expositions have indicated. If so, to what end? The joint statement issued at the end of Ranil’s Beijing visit, for instance, said: “Sri Lanka … appreciates China’s efforts and readiness to promote such dialogue in order to maintain peace and security in the region.”
So, China is not the ‘trouble’ either. Nor can Sri Lanka afford to consider and act on that score, either, for any length of time. There is no nation or international financial institution/consortium that can under–write the nation’s ‘China debts’, even if in economic/fiscal terms. Rather, PM Ranil was quoted as urging his hosts for an equity–swap for the $8 billion debt, again as the Rajapaksa regime had thought of.
Sri Lanka has thus acknowledged the large naval and military presence in the South China Sea / East China Sea region, on the one hand, and also does not seem to apprehend any precipitate naval/military action from China on this score. Anyway, the Pacific, Banda Aceh and the Strait of Malacca re not Sri Lanka’s direct problem, now or ever — though the nation is bound to lose heavily if there is ‘trouble’ there.
Nor can Sri Lanka hope to resolve the ‘South China Sea’ dispute. Politics and diplomacy, it still can try. It had done so, and had succeeded to a limited or greater extent during the India–China conflict of 1962. Then or now, it cannot certainly do so in any naval/military way, by any stretch of imagination, now or ever. More importantly, Sri Lanka is wise enough not to get caught in the cross–fire of an America–China military engagement of whatever kind, wherever and whenever. Nor are its political and military leaders unwise to take an ambivalent position, viz China and/or the US, militarily or even politically, again.
Sri Lanka does not fear India, militarily – at least, not any more, or so would it seem. Nor can it be worried by other Ocean neighbours like Maldives, Mauritius or Seychelles, now or later. Whether it is Gota’s ‘blue-water navy’ or Ranil’s current plan, it does not (also) make military or economic sense for Sri Lanka to extend/over–extend its naval presence ‘across the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean’, as PM Ranil has alluded in his Trincomalee speech.
The question also arises about the economics of it, more so when the Ranil government in particular has openly acknowledged the nation’s difficulties in this sphere, without shying away. At Trincomalee, the PM clarified that the nation should increase its GDP (manifold?), to meet the upcoming naval out-reach of the kind that he had explained. What does it all mean for Sri Lanka? One, is the nation going to put somebody else’s guns before its own bread, if not butter? Two, if the choice is between butter and gun, after the bread, where does the nation stand?
The irony of it all is more striking, when the geo–economic compulsions and geo–strategic realities are read together. Just now, the nation has been leaning more towards China, for developmental funding and the rest. It has also approached the IMF, again, as if it’s trying to balance–off. Over the medium term, it would not be able to wish away either.
Three, whatever the naval role the nation perceives/practises in the larger Indian Ocean, if not the Pacific, too, is it going to pay for western naval assets from China-facilitated GDP growth, even if only over the years and decades? Or, is it going to buy Chinese naval assets with China’s money? There are instances of the kind during the ‘Eelam War’ era, which went beyond the ‘Rice-Rubber Pact’ (1952) that PM Ranil has referred to favourably, since returning home from Beijing.
Hypothetically, Sri Lanka could also use China’s money, or China–facilitated GDP growth to buy naval and other military assets from Russia, or whoever. What would either or any of it mean in the larger political/diplomatic context, even leaving aside the concerns and confusion in India?
Four, does Sri Lanka have any role at all to spread its naval wings beyond what its eyes can see now and ever? It’s not just about restrictions, self–imposed or otherwise, but about inferences and interferences that it could not stop or stall after a point. If so, where should it begin and what should it end with? Does Sri Lanka hope to stay the course, uninfluenced and/or uninterfered with, by more than the ‘one elephant in the room’ ?
More importantly, would it mean, Sri Lanka is now wanting to play the ‘super–power game’ without being one, and not being seen and acknowledged as going–to–be one for years and decades to come, if at all? If at all so, could it guarantee for itself that it does not get identified with either side in the larger geo–strategic game on the one hand, and/or getting caught in the cross–fire, as it had done, both during the ‘Cold War’ era and afterward, too?
These are questions that cannot be answered as openly as the propositions on which they derive from. Yet, these are also issues that cannot be overlooked and ignored, and need to be discussed and debated, even if within the confines of the State structure(s) and political leaderships — not to leave out the nation’s military leadership, present and future.
This commentary originally appeared in The Sunday Leader.
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