The Sunday Leader

Strategic Autonomy And National Consensus

By N Sathiya Moorthy

It’s all in a nation’s heart, or so it seems. Suddenly, Sri Lanka seems to have adequate ‘strategic space’ to share with the American and Chinese ‘super-power’ rivals, on sea and/or land, but at the same time.  News that an elite American SEALS team and a Chinese troops’ group are holding separate military exercises with counterparts, respectively, off the Trincomalee coast and at training institutions on-land, for about two weeks each, should come as a shock or surprise to many in the strategic community, nearer home and afar.

Going by media reports, this is the first time that the Americans are holding such exercises under the ‘Extended Relations Programme’ with Sri Lanka after a gap, an elaborate version having been conducted when Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga was President. From the Sri Lankan side, the exercise involves the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and Fast Attack Craft (FAC) flotilla, which were either non-existent or were still in their infancy the last time round or so it seems.

The Chinese exercises with the Special Forces’ commandos of Sri Lanka, is the second in a series, first conducted in China. It’s euphemistically code-named ‘Silk Route 2015’, and has the potential to send out confusing signals to nations that have justified suspicions over the Chinese motives and methods behind their ‘New Maritime Silk Route Project’ (MSR) in particular.

Therein lies the irony of the existing and emerging ‘strategic situation’ for Sri Lanka, within and without. The land exercise with China was planned under the previous administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even more ironically, it’s the American SEALS exercises that are aimed at counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations at sea, which if at all under the circumstances, should have concerned the Chinese, in the context of their MSR project. Instead, the Chinese exercises involve VVIP protection and jungle warfare, where again the Sri Lanka Army excelled during the decades-old anti-terror wars as their Navy counterparts in the SEALS exercises did on sea through the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ in particular.

This however is not the first time that Sri Lanka is doing ‘strategic’ (?) business with the US and China at the same time. At the commencement of ‘Eelam War IV’, when President Rajapaksa was away in China, his brother and then Defence Secretary Gotabaya signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with then US Ambassador (and later-day Assistant Secretary of State) Robert Blake on ‘American soil’, locally – at the US Embassy in Colombo. It was known that when the Chinese supplied hardware for Sri Lanka to fight LTTE terror, the US was providing intelligence inputs and ‘discouraging’ LTTE weapons-procurers and suppliers through coordinated under-cover operations, nearer home and afar.


Critical partner still or again?

In another coincidence of the kind, Atul Keshap, an Indian-American and US President Barack Obama’s ambassadorial nominee for Sri Lanka told a congressional committee that the latter would be a ‘critical partner’ in broadening American interests across the Indo-Pacific region. “Noting that there is room for closer cooperation on disaster response and maritime security in the Indian Ocean”, a report by the Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted him as telling the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation-hearing, that Sri Lanka is a regional leader in the fight against cyber-crime, a contributor to UN Peace-keeping Operations and is focused on disrupting drug- trafficking and fighting maritime piracy.

Keshap said the US wanted to build lasting peace and fellowship among Sri Lanka’s various religious and ethnic groups.”We want to help build a lasting peace and fellowship among Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious communities, including credible justice, accountability and reconciliation that can facilitate closure for those who suffered and lost loved ones during the war,” the PTI report said further.
“It is important to get this right, and the UN and international community can lend useful insight to the efforts of the Sri Lankan people,” Keshap said.

This is not the first time that the US has acknowledged Sri Lanka’s role – or, the role that Washington may have assigned for the nation – in American strategic considerations and calculations for the Indo-Pacific region. Present-day US Secretary of State John Kerry as Co-Chair of the very same Senate committee had co-authored a report at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, saying as much. That was when the international community was sending out and receiving confusing signals on global support for the Rajapaksa Government’s ‘war efforts’.

If someone got the Kerry message wrong, they were possibly in the Rajapaksa Government. They had possibly taken that the Senate panel’s acknowledgement of a ‘critical role’ for Sri Lanka in American geo-strategic calculations for the immediate region and more was also amounted to inevitable continuance of support for the Rajapaksa leadership, all-round.

It was not to be the case, as they (would have) found out for themselves after Kerry had become Secretary of State, succeeding a relatively outspoken Hillary Clinton at the US State Department. They too found out that there were other ways for the US to sub-serve its strategic interests viz Sri Lanka, without having to support every act of commission and omission on the part of the Colombo Government of the day.

As the Sri Lankans might have recalled a wee bit too late, there was also unanimity of a kind that went beyond President Obama’s Democrats in Clinton and Kerry. The Senate panel report that the latter had co-authored had a rival Republican Senator as Co-Chair and co-author, and he too subscribed to the views.


Continuity with change

It’s obvious that some of the current decisions of a political nature in terms of Sri Lanka’s foreign and security policy under a new leadership flow from decisions that had already been taken and begun to be implemented by the predecessor Government. There have also been marked, though not necessarily remarkable, changes at the same time.

‘Continuity with change’, and possibly not even ‘change with continuity’, seems to be the watch-word for the twin leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and more so for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose UNP seems to be calling all the shots in the ‘National Government’, all the time.  The shift in Sri Lanka’s ‘China policy’ under the new leadership seems to be more on the strategic front. The efforts now seem to be aimed at re-positioning’ Sri Lanka equi-distance from China and the US on the one hand, and China and India on the other, without having to upset Beijing on the developmental assistance front. A review of the China-funded ‘Colombo Port City’ Project thus seems to be more political and even more politicised, than is possibly real.

Despite their inevitable opposition to the Rajapaksa leadership and the ruling SLFP-UPFA that he led in office on the political front all-round, the UNP and present-day Prime Minister Wickremesinghe (then Opposition Leader for those 10 years) had not contested the incumbent Government’s ‘China policy’. At the advent of the Rajapaksa presidency in 2005, there instead seemed to be a ‘national consensus’ of sorts in Sri Lanka on the subject.

The consensus ‘mantra’ at the time seemed to be ‘China for development funds, India and India alone for security cooperation’. If the UNP as the nation’s GoP and the official Opposition party of the day in Parliament and outside had any reservations on the China front – developmental or strategic – it did not seem to have aired any of them, through those 10 long years, implying ‘consensus by silence’, if nothing else.

There was cause for a breakdown of sorts in that consensus nearer home, possibly when the Rajapaksa Government let Chinese submarines traverse Sri Lankan waters and park at Sri Lankan ports. That it caused concerns across the Indian Ocean neighbourhood – and not just in India — not to leave out the US and its European allies, went without saying. If the UNP was perturbed at the time, it did not speak out, still.


Keeping India posted

In a strategic sense, the presence of Chinese submarines exposed Sri Lankan waters as much as India’s southern maritime domain, to extra-regional powers keen on studying the unique hydrographic features of the shared waters for submarine operations in the indeterminable future. A re-visit of the ‘strategic component’ of the unacknowledged ‘national consensus’ does not mean that the new leadership has to give a go-by to the developmental parts and aspects of bilateral relations with China.

India’s concerns on Sri Lanka’s China front notwithstanding, it’s unclear if the non-Rajapaksa leadership in Colombo informed New Delhi now about the joint exercises with the American SEALS, off the coast of Trincomalee. It may be that Colombo might have concluded that the presence of American SEALS in Sri Lankan waters and conducting joint exercises with the Sri Lanka Navy might not have been as ‘prejudicial to India’s interests’ as might have been when they signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.

As is known, the Rajapaksa leadership was reported to have not taken India into confidence on the port-facilities offered to both the Chinese submarines, even though New Delhi, according to Indian newspaper reports, was believed to have registered a ‘strong protest’ with Colombo after the first episode. In a way, it was true of other naval activities involving other nations, too, at and off the Sri Lankan ports ever since the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed.

It may be recalled that Para 2 (II) of the duly-acknowledged letter from then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Sri Lankan President of the day, J R Jayewardene, as a part and extension of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord reads thus: “Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interest.”

It may be that both sides have let the letter of the communication pass even while retaining at least a part of the spirit thereof, considering that whatever may hurt India on the shared seas could not but affect Sri Lanka, too. It’s however unlikely that successive governments in Colombo had invited foreign navies, or acceded to such requests/proposals for berthing facilities or naval exercises, if only to render the Accord clause ineffectual, for India to complain on specific instances of the Chinese submarines kind.

It’s nobody’s case that Sri Lanka should continue to keep notifying India on every arrival of every foreign vessel on its waters or at its shores. Not has India been expecting it either, unless it has had something to do with India’s own security – and the collective security of the region as a whole, that too after Sri Lanka had joined in as the third arm of the trilateral maritime cooperation programme, originally involving India and Maldives – and had also shared the other two’s views, to expand the scope of the same by inviting and inducting Mauritius and Seychelles, too, in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

In focus is not India, but the way the present Government and its predecessor have handled near-similar situations of a security, strategic and geo-strategic kind. If it was strategic re-balancing, Sri Lanka is doing it more so between China and the US, and not necessarily China and India. The reasons are as (much) political as may have been driven by larger strategic issues than immediate security concerns.  Back to the days of ‘strategic consensus’ within Sri Lanka but of a tit-for-tat variety – but without India, in either case — did you say?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email:

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