By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Recently, Sri Lanka has been wooed by world powers—particularly China, US, India and Russia—thus, in view of Sri Lanka’s desire to engage with major powers through continued cooperation in areas that are beneficial to the country, it is very interesting to note the American ambassador designate Julie Chung’s emphasis that the United States needs to build constructive relationships with Sri Lanka.
At the high-post hearing by Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she gave her frank opinion that such constructive relationships are required since Sri Lanka is positioned in a strategic location at the heart of the Indian Ocean.
Global power blocs as well as emerging regional powers have acknowledged Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean Region, its close proximity to busy sea lines of communication, coupled together with Sri Lanka’s vision to become an international financial centre and a regional maritime hub. The Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has pledged to steer a neutral foreign policy which will allow Sri Lanka to safeguard national interests and play a moderating role in the international community, without aligning itself with power blocs.
At the Congressional hearing on her appointment as Ambassador to Sri Lanka and The Maldives, US Foreign Service officer Julie Chung, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Sri Lanka is positioned in a strategic location and its critical ports with access to global maritime lanes and trading routes play a pivotal role in a free and open Indo-Pacific architecture. “This reinforces the necessity for the United States to build constructive relationships with Sri Lanka, including with civil society, the private sector and the Sri Lankan people,” she said.
The new envoy assured she would work tirelessly to advocate for quality infrastructure and investment based on transparency, respect for international law and good governance, which is mindful of sustainable environmental and labour standards.
“We must also support US companies doing business in Sri Lanka and utilise the tools we have with the Development Finance Corporation and the ExportImport Bank to provide alternatives to coercive lending and opaque contracts,” she said, without naming any country. Chun’s strategy on Sri Lanka is very much in line with the ‘U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’ formulated in 2018. The classified document stated one objective as ‘bringing Sri Lanka, a strategically located nation in the center of the Indo-Pacific region, into power play’.
Three military technology agreements
The document stated that the US has three South Asian nations in sight for her grand plan in collaboration with India, i.e., Sri Lanka, The Maldives and Bangladesh. Having entered into three military-technology agreements with India, Washington’s desire to further strengthen India directly affects Sri Lanka, as India acts as a proxy to Washington.
Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan, Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy & Technology in India says this background and developments brings a special interest to Sri Lanka’s survival in the Indo-Pacific region, the formulation of its foreign policy, and her relations with India, the United States and China.
Some of the salient policy determinations and projections in the US document include a strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China. India remains pre-eminent in South Asia and takes the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security, increased engagement with Southeast Asia, and expands its economic, defence, and diplomatic cooperation with other U.S. allies and partners in the region. The US objective is to accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and major defence partner.
With regard to Sri Lanka, The Maldives and Bangladesh, the US Objective is listed in the document as to strengthen the capacity of emerging partners in the three South Asian countries, to contribute to a free and open order and establish a new initiative with South Asian partners modelled on the Maritime Security Initiative.
Sri Lanka has well established bilateral and multilateral security cooperation with the major powers of the Indo-Pacific region and is willing to engage in deeper cooperation for further regional integration. Sri Lanka has conducted joint military exercises with Russia, India, China, and Australia and has an exchange military training programme with the US. Last week two Russian submarines visited Port of Colombo, which has welcomed military ships from US, China, and India in recent months. Sri Lanka also took part in trilateral military exercises with India and The Maldives.
Although Sri Lanka has no intention whatsoever to join a military bloc, with further engagement with US, the country stands to benefit from regional schemes such as US Government’s efforts to advance sustainable infrastructure through the Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network and the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act. It further includes assistance for a number of development schemes involving digital connectivity and expanding opportunities for US technology exports through the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership.
American Ambassador designate Chung pointed out another area of cooperation and said US humanitarian assistance, emergency response capabilities and environmental surveillance tools helped Sri Lanka respond to MV X-Press Pearl tragedy. She said it is emblematic of how US can be a positive force and strong partner to the people of Sri Lanka. “The sinking of the MV X-Press Pearl cargo ship near the shores of Colombo a few months ago, causing its biggest marine disaster in Sri Lanka’s history, points to the need for upholding such standards.”
Asia’s oldest democracy
While stressing that Sri Lanka is Asia’s oldest democracy and survived the tragedy of a separatist war, Ms Chung added a word about continued ethnic and religious divisions. She assured the Senators that, “I am committed to speaking clearly and consistently in support of democratic values, human rights and a strong civil society that are essential to democracies and central to our foreign policy approach.
We must also be strong partners in encouraging justice, accountability and reconciliation so that all Sri Lankans can share the benefits of peace, security and prosperity.” While spelling out the strategic interests, she also identified the huge potential Sri Lanka has, as far as trade and economy are concerned. If carefully handled, the US approach could bring the bilateral ties to a new high as Ambassador Chung’s remarks display how the US sees Sri Lanka’s importance as an independent nation and strategic location, and how it aims to strengthen the existing Sri Lanka-US relationship.