India, Sri Lanka And The Indian Ocean
By N. Sathiya Moorthy
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inaugural speech at the ‘Galle Dialouge-2015’ should be noted as much for the content as the form. It was the first time that the he was addressing the Dialogue since the post-war founding in 2010. More importantly, it is one of the few institutions identified with the predecessor regime, and more importantly with then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, that the present government has not meddled with.
In a way, it shows the present government’s respect for the Navy and the larger security apparatus(es) of the nation as institutions. It is more so in the context of the ongoing political controversies attending on the Avant Garde ‘floating armoury’ issue. There is then the larger issue of ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability concerns’ centered on an International body like the UNHRC, and the more recent claims/findings of a UN subsidiary on a ‘torture chamber’ in the Trincomalee naval base.
Owing to logistics or whatever, the Government had given the go-ahead to the Navy to carry on with the Galle Dialogue-2015, which takes months and years to organise. However, the very fact that the Prime Minister of the day still chose to address the international audience, all of them either from their respective navies or from the strategic community from those other nations, should go a long way in assuring and re-assuring the rest of Sri Lanka and more particularly its much-maligned defence apparatus that the Government does not have any new view or perception on larger issues of security concerns and interests than what has been the acknowledged ‘national consensus’ of the past decade(s).
Twenty-first century version
In doing so, PM Wickremesinghe has sort of re-balanced Sri Lanka’s own naval-based security concerns, pertaining, of course, to the abutting Indian Ocean. The January 08 presidential polls was a Sri Lankan mass-reassurance of sorts that the aberration introduced during the predecessor Rajapaksa’s regime would get automatically readjusted to the nationally-committed position. It got a further boost with the results of the August 17 parliamentary polls, which reaffirmed Wickremesinghe’s conferred status as the nation’s ‘elected’ PM.
Wickremesinghe’s elevation alongside the election of President Maithripala Sirisena – rather, the exit of President Mahinda Rajapaksa – sort of guaranteed that episodes like the unilateral berthing facilities made available for Chinese submarines in the last leg of President Rajapaksa’s second term would not be repeated. The Galle speech was an extension and reiteration of the official Sri Lankan position, known and repeatedly reiterated at regular intervals over the post-Independence decades – with occasional aberrations, of course.
In the past, Sri Lanka had taken the lead in campaigning for ‘Indian Ocean as a zone of peace.’ In the post-Cold War 21st century ground – rather, Ocean – reality, Wickremesinghe’s speech re-oriented the Sri Lankan position/situation to existing and emerging contingencies. It’s thus that the speech acknowledged the continued American naval presence in the distant Indian Ocean waters, even when there was no ‘super-power competition’ of the erstwhile Soviet Union kind.
‘Elephant in the room’
In his speech, Wickremesinghe has shown a preference for the recently-coined American geo-strategic terminology, ‘Indo-Pacific’ to the Cold War era’s ‘Asia-Pacific’ — which Sri Lanka has limited to South-East Asia, elsewhere in the speech — but possibly not confined to the larger American contextualisation. In Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbourhood and geo-strategic contexts, the PM’s mention of ‘Indo-Pacific’ may have to be construed (though not specifically mentioned) as referring to the Indian Ocean on the one hand and to India-Sri Lanka equations on the other.
Likewise, Wickremesinghe’s reference to China’s concerns to the India-US strategic relationship may also have to be contextualised to hidden — or at least unmentioned and equally unspecified — Sri Lankan concerns, as well. If elaborated and expanded, it could apply to such other Indian Ocean littorals abutting India that are relatively smaller in size in every which way. These smaller, mostly island neighbours of India hence also have a relatively larger dependence on ‘sovereignty’ as a geo-political and geo-strategic (though to a lesser relevance) hedge, and hence ownership and claims to ‘territorial waters,’ et al.
The only highlighted portion in the speech text (available in the ‘official website of Galle Dialogue 2015’, googled by the same reference) however calls the US as the ‘elephant in the room.’ It might not have been the kind of public reference that Sri Lanka’s current crop of western friends might have wanted to hear, particularly from a traditionally, pro-West, pro-liberal, pro-capitalism Prime Minister in Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe leads and represents the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka’s GoP, with an acknowledged West and all that the West stands for. In domestic politics, the UNP all along, and Wickremesinghe since assuming the party reins two decades ago, have been the antidote to and anathema of all what the center-Left breakaway Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had stood for, in terms of ideology and practicality.
In comparison, President Rajapaksa and successor-incumbent Maithripala Sirisena have belonged to the SLFP school of political thought. Given the Sri Lankan political reality and the sub-continental geo-strategic reality, if during the Cold War era, regional-power India suo moto tilted towards the Soviet Union for its own reasons and justification, Sri Lanka under UNP rule would tilt towards the US and the rest of the West even more, from the nationally-acknowledged ‘centrist’ (?) position.
Under an SLFP regime, Sri Lanka had to be center-Left and non-India at the same time without being on the centre-Right global denomination. China fitted the bill, more so after the parting of ways with the Soviet Union on the map of the ‘global Red’ and with which the northern Indian neighbour had unresolved problems, highlighted also by the 1962 war along the Himalayas.
If in this historic background, someone thought that PM Wickremesinghe’s speech, the first major one since assuming office on the geo-strategic front, would tilt the scales in favour of the US and the rest of the West, it was not to be. Instead, he may have at best acknowledged the existing global, regional and Indian Ocean realities, and thus the American presence, too.
It is in this context and background, PM Wickremesinghe needs to be understood and appreciated. “Sri Lanka understands the role of the US Navy and the requirement for the littoral states to include the US Navy in implementing the obligations to uphold the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean,” he said in a clever and consciously-worded reference to the territorial disputes that Beijing has been forcing on East and South-East Asian neighbours in recent times.
In this context, Wickremesinghe refers to the “adoption of a Chinese strategy of soft diplomacy in Asia and East Africa” and specifically mentions the “construction of new ports such as Hambantota and the String of Pearls Theory, which he acknowledges has “raised concerns of a possible Chinese long-term plan to extend its sea power to the Indian Ocean.” This is the first time that a Sri Lankan Government leader has acknowledged a possible strategic element in China’s developmental funding along the ‘String of Pearls’ (an American euphemism, in the early days) and more so to Hambantota port in the country with an implied negative connotation.
However, Wickremesinghe did not stop there. In the same vein as referring to the regional and sub-regional worries about China, in the very next sentence of his speech, he also points out that “there are concerns raised by the Chinese about a US-Indian strategic vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region.” He also referred to the trade-route concerns of the EU, China, Japan and Korea – where he has left out the US, and maybe Russia, too – and the “security threats that can emerge due to international terrorism,” with the ‘vulnerable points’ being the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Bab-el Mandeb.
It is in “against such a background, it is vital to adopt an inclusive approach that invites all stake-holders to discussions concerning freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean,” PM Wickremesinghe said. In context, he underscored how “history bears witness that the littoral states in the region have always resisted the domination of the Indian Ocean by any single entity.” Though Wickremesinghe did not mention it, even when there was European domination of the Indian Ocean and its littorals, their political competition and military contests back home got reflected in the Asian waters and landmass – in war and peace alike.
Overall, it also acknowledged the fact that Indian Ocean’s relevance to global maritime trade had existed long before the Pacific became relevant, a fact acknowledged by history otherwise, and by PM Wickremesinghe in context. Only that, “in the case of the Indian Ocean, many of the stakeholders are from outside the region”. The reasons are obvious, too. So are they continual.
Lead role for Sri Lanka
Wickremesinghe’s Galle speech has to be noted also for his implicit and explicit references to a role for Sri Lanka in the existing and emerging situation on Indian Ocean geo-strategic and other security contexts. Under the predecessor Rajapaksa regime, Secretary Gota Rajapaksa used to constantly refer to a ‘blue water navy’ for Sri Lanka in the years to come. Wickremesinghe seems to have climbed down a bit, without seemingly doing so. Or, there is a re-thinking and re-shaping of the Gota plan for the Sri Lanka Navy without compromising on the overall ‘blue water’ capability.
Thus, even while talking about “supplementing the blue-water capability of the Sri Lanka Navy and the consolidation of the Sri Lanka Coast Guard are areas of concern for the Government,” the Prime Minister has specified the “establishment of a small naval force” (highlight that of the writer, not of the speaker) and has also “acknowledged the need to amalgamate the competencies” of the nation’s Navy and the Air Force in “what is seen as a strategic component of the country’s security network.”
The Prime Minister, painting a broader picture well into the distant future, has said, “Although substantial resources have been made towards strengthening the security on land, due to internal factors, emphasis on reinforcing high levels of maritime security has been insufficient.” Elsewhere in his speech, Wickremesinghe refers to the ‘domestic factors’ without actually mentioning them as such. One was a ‘policy-reversal’ that took place under the successor to the ‘Father of the Nation.’ D. S. Senannayake, the UNP stalwart of the years immediately after the nation’s Independence in February 1948, who had ‘envisioned’ a ‘small, sea-going Navy’ for the nation.
In the same vein, Wickremesinghe also refers to the ‘period of terrorism,’ which ‘sustained the focus on land warfare.’ The reference could as much be to the two JVP insurgencies, which were a forerunner to LTTE terrorism, which has mostly been in focus and news in more recent decades. The Sri Lankan experience need to be contextualised to global concerns on the terrorism front, both before and after the JVP and LTTE eras nearer home.
Ironically, even while talking about terrorism nearer home and sea-borne terrorism otherwise, the Prime Minister has not made any mention whatsoever to the dreaded ‘Sea Tigers’ wing of the LTTE or their even more motivated ‘Black Sea Tigers,’ the likes of which could give a deeper and sustained political meaning to relatively lesser crimes like piracy for profit. Considering that Sri Lanka Navy did master neutralising the ‘Sea Tigers’ through experience and experimentation, and considering the constant references to sea-borne terrorism, both explicit and implied in the PM’s speech, the gap is showing – and more so, considering that it is a gap driven by ‘domestic’ politics and not policy.
On a future role for Sri Lanka, PM Wickremesinghe has been more explicit than Gota and other naval strategists of the nation at the time. Unlike Gota and his times, Sri Lanka under the new regime and Wickremesinghe’s personal care and geo-political leanings may have been better placed to enunciate a more specific and purposeful role for the nation in the emerging geo-strategic security concerns and considerations for the Indian Ocean.
It may also have taken into calculation that China, at the other end of the emerging geo-strategic spectrum, too would have nothing to fear from Sri Lanka, particularly if the latter were to retain the ‘geo-strategic non-alignment’ imagery better than the predecessor Rajapaksa regime. In such a situation, ‘genuine non-alignment’ by Sri Lanka on the geo-strategic front should be welcome for China, too, compared to any violent tilt towards the other side, as had happened in the ‘Cold War’ Seventies, or was being feared as happening by the rest of the world in more recent times – a tilt towards China, that was.
“Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the center of the Indian Ocean is exceptional,” Wickremesinghe declared at Galle. Making a customary reference to President Sirisena’s leadership, just in the passing, and a purposeful pointer to the nation’s economic interests in the Bay of Bengal region, where it wanted to increase trade with India – and Pakistan – he has proposed a lead-role for Sri Lanka in managing the maritime security affairs of the Indian Ocean.
“The Indian Ocean is in need of a mutually benefiting security architecture established on multilateral basis,” the Prime Minister said. “There is also space for an effective multilateral governing structure,” he added. “Unlike the Asia Pacific, this region is not economically integrated. The IORAC is not effective as a regional organisation. Neither has there been any meaningful progress in giving effect to the Kochi and the Perth communiqués,” the Sri Lankan leader said further, without elaboration. “The maritime security of the Indian Ocean cannot be guaranteed without filling this lacuna,” he surmised.
To PM Wicrkemesinghe, “no country is capable of handling maritime security threats and challenges in isolation, no matter how advanced and developed it might be.” The reference of course is to countries such as the US and China, both non-regional players in the Indian Ocean. “The need,” thus, he says, is to “think globally and engage in structural co-operation mechanisms in order to effectively address the maritime security threats and challenges”.
It’s in this background perception that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has declared that “Sri Lanka is willing to take the lead to set up a multilateral forum that involves all stake-holders with UN support, to address the security issues, including control of choke-points and maritime security blue-print. Such a forum categorised by a collective approach is likely to set the stage for a timely and relevant mechanism to be established for open and comprehensive dialogue on a range of issues affecting the Indian Ocean in particular, and the Indo-Pacific region in general.”
No base for anyone
A new, additional meaning may have to be read into well worn-out Sri Lankan position on not granting naval base to any other nation on its territory. While reiterating that Sri Lankan ports would be available for every nation, “we would like to reiterate that there would be no naval bases allocated to other countries within Sri Lanka,” the Prime Minister reiterated at Galle. In a way, it is a repetition also of the declared intention and policy of the previous government, going back to the then President’s maiden, 2005 election manifesto, “Mahinda Chintanaya.”
There is a message in this for all nations of the region and of the world, to the larger Indian neighbour in particular. First, there is a reiteration of the reassurance that came with the regime-change in Colombo this year that adversarial China cannot hope for a naval base in the country despite having invested heavily in the southern Hambantota port. It is a reassertion of the predecessor Rajapaksa’s claims that nations would have to go to China for developmental funds (where alone it is readily available) but on strategic issues, Sri Lanka would have to fall back on India, and India alone – but not necessarily followed to the ‘t’.
Second, there is a confirmation of the Indian expectation that Sri Lanka would be on the side of global democracy in asserting ‘freedom of navigation,’ viz China, as the US had challenged the latter through a recent episode. It is another matter for India to be concerned about, in Sri Lanka’s extension of the argument, should the US wanted assess and assert the ‘freedom of navigation’ rights in India’s own waters, as had been indicated in recent times.
Thirdly, and most importantly, PM Wickremesinghe seems to have boldly re-positioned Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean context, by moving away from the original call for a ‘zone of peace’ declaration to the fitted candidate to lead the regional pack on a global search for ensuring peaceful seas in the Indian Ocean of the 21st century. The earlier one was an Utopian dream, the present one acknowledges the ground realities, but whether Sri Lanka has the political resources to give a realistic leadership to the current claims and consequent call remains to be seen – remains to be proved.
The prime ministerial implication is real. The US and China are the elephants in the room. Other Indian Ocean littorals, including India, have specific issues with an emerging China, which also wants to be seen as an ‘Indian Ocean naval power’ as is required under the global economic circumstances as the US has been seen since the end of the Second World War.
As Wickremesinghe has pointed out in his speech, there is a power-balance vacuum in the Indian Ocean following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though he has not mentioned it, the power vacuum caused by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union had extended to the land, where it had actually commenced. China was/is unwilling and equally unprepared to take on the challenge/opportunity, and also the mantle. With the result, global terrorism in the form of an unacknowledged ‘clash of civilisations’, has sought to fill that vacuum, unilaterally and unacceptably.
However, in the seas, Wickremesinghe has implied that China is seeking to fill that vacuum. Sri Lanka does not seem to have any complaint, now as earlier, if China were to play by the rules of the game. There is also an implied call for the rest, both littorals and the American ‘elephant in the room,’ that they too should comply.
It is natural, too, considering that Sri Lanka, like all other littorals, and also the rest of the world, depends on China, not only for development, but also for trade. And for trade, China and the littorals, including Sri Lanka, require the Indian Ocean, and as much ‘freedom of navigation’ as the US and the rest of the world and the nation have – and demand, as well. There has to be mutual co-existence, and a mechanism to attain it as well, going beyond the ASEAN-Plus arrangement and also the Kochi and Perth Dialogues, so to say.
More importantly, in the immediate Indian Ocean context, Sri Lanka seems to be seeing itself as being better-placed to take the lead in seeking peaceful seas than the larger Indian neighbour, which could have otherwise taken on the role, but for the long-pending border dispute with China, and the more recent Indo-Pacific pact with the US. Rather by default, than design, Sri Lanka would want India to believe that someone has to bell the cat, and if India could not do it for reasons assigned, Sri Lanka would be the best candidate.
At the previous edition, Galle Dialogue-2014, when President Rajapaksa was in office, India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) was the main speaker. He referred to Sri Lanka’s forgotten call for declaring the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace.’ However, India did not follow up on the reference. Instead, given its ground-level compulsions vis a vis China on the land border, and its preparations for a greater naval presence and role in the post-Cold War context, of sharing and caring for other adversaries of China elsewhere, it continued with increased naval cooperation arrangements and agreements with the US and the rest in the Indo-Pacific geo-strategic context.
It’s a folly to conclude that Wickremesinghe’s Galle speech is a new beginning in Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic re-positioning in these years after the ethnic war, when a new political leadership could and should take fresh look and leads that befitted a larger role for the nation and its experienced fighting force, in the seas and the air as much as on land. A national consensus, unacknowledged and mostly understood by the rest of the world, had evolved during the run-up to the 2005 presidential polls, whose results proved more historic to the nation than anything in the preceding years since Independence.
The consensus involved acknowledging the post-Cold War geo-strategic realities in the Indian Ocean, and not making Sri Lanka the theatre for other people’s war, cold or hot. There seemed to have also been a consensus – at times shared with the other neighbourhood Indian Ocean littoral that in matters of external security, they could not encourage or engage with non-regional super-powers, and should confine the same to the larger Indian neighbour.
Where there are differences, it may have been over India putting its geo-strategic and internal security considerations in isolation to that of other Indian Ocean neighbours, dependent on it for medium and long-term security cover. Such a continuing perception, a hand-me-down concern of Sri Lanka in particular, from the Cold War era, has meant that independent of whoever is in power, the nation looks up to limited to not-so-limited suspicion, which feeds and fuel avoidable mistrust on both sides.
Second is the adjoining concern flowing from the ‘ethnic issue’, where successive governments in Sri Lanka have felt an inevitable need for a near-eternal global fall-back in terms of a ‘veto vote’ in the UN Security Council. It is another matter that on post-war issues of war-crimes and accountability issues, the US-led West could take it all away from the charmed circle of the UNSC, to the no-holds-barred UNHRC, where it still lies.
It is a continuing concern now for Sri Lanka, independent of the regime-change, where domestic perceptions differ from one another and from those of the US-led West, in form and details. It is also here that Sri Lanka has for long expected Indian cooperation, as much as non-interference of the Eighties kind. It’s another difficult task for India to handle, given the domestic sensitivities in the Tamil Nadu context and also the larger issues attending on the likes of 13-A, which it had facilitated but which might have become increasingly irrelevant, to Sri Lanka’s domestic stake-holders, one way or the other, one different from the other.
Sri Lanka, with the change of regime, has applied correctives on the geo-strategic front, on the China front, so to say, for India to breathe easy. However, Sri Lanka also seems wanting the continued Indian influence, which had fallen short under the earlier regime in exclusive Sri Lankan perspective, to offset any need for a veto-vote in form and/or content in the global context, be it from China or Russia, or both.
Until then, this unsure Sri Lankan approach to India and the rest of the democratic world may (have to) continue. Even then, while continuing to fall back on the Indian ‘sister’ with greater confidence and trust, Sri Lanka would still hope for India to settle its larger differences with China on the border dispute and global political front, before crowing the regional/sub-regional crown with ease and poise. If in between, India sees shades of Sri Lankan manipulation of the regional and sub-regional realities, of playing one against the other, where corrective became necessary, it would be applied – but it would have to end there.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.