Two rooms, too many elephants!

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Talking about Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic options, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has always been fond of referring to the US as the ‘elephant in the room’ in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood. Others might have implied ‘elephant in the tea-shop’, not Ranil. To him, it has always meant that the US is already there in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood in a big way and Sri Lanka cannot wish away the in working out its geo-strategic priorities and posturing.

It is also the right way to evaluate the ground/sea situation around Sri Lanka – rather, one room in the sea, another on the land. The US is not going to get out of the international waters in the neighbourhood at Sri Lanka’s say-so. Nor is it going to irritate Sri Lanka from that proximity. They are here for larger stakes, and they have already achieved some of it, but keep expanding their portfolio all the same.

In the post-Cold War era, it has moved on from Afghanistan to Iraq, and now to Iran. China has been the long-term US concern from an American perspective. This is not to leave out West Asia, inherited from the Cold War era.

It is in this background that the proposed SOFA (‘Status of Forces Agreement’) with the US assumes contemporary relevance from a purely Sri Lankan stand-point. China is already there on Sri Lankan land, in Hambantota, purportedly on a developmental mission. The route that China took was/is dubious, to say the least. Neither the predecessor Rajapaksa regime, nor the incumbent Wickremesinghe leadership absolve itself of the sham they acted out on China’s behalf – more by the latter than the former, as was being made out at the time of Chinese induction.

‘Blue Water’ Navy

There are no surprises for guessing that China is developing a ‘Blue Water’ Navy quick and fast, and the US fears that it may be there in the Indian Ocean before long. There are genuine concerns in this regard, more for regional nations like India, which already has a long-standing land-border dispute with China. On the seas, America’s regional allies like Japan and South Korea, among others have similar issues on China’s unilateral maritime territorial claims.

Yet, the fact is Sri Lanka has no problems or issues with China. For the US thus to assume that its presence in Sri Lanka, both on land and in the sea, would offset increasing Chinese presence and influence in the neighbourhood is fraught with unease, if not outright danger for nations like Sri Lanka.

American concerns are not Sri Lanka’s concerns. Why, even neighbouring India’s problems are not Sri Lanka’s after a point. For the US, thus wanting to sign up SOFA with Sri Lanka could well mean American soldiers setting foot on Sri Lankan land under bilateral agreement and on a regular basis. For Sri Lanka, it is not only about questions of sovereignty. It involves anxieties about China, Russia and other nations of Europe and Asia wanting similar treaties.

Having agreed to one nation, Sri Lanka cannot say ‘no’ to others, without causing friction. In the case of China, for instance, a Sri Lankan ‘No’ in context could be the cause for worry, and the eruption of a ‘neo Cold War’, post-Cold War. The question is if Sri Lanka wants to be the first battle-ground for such a neo Cold War?

All of which means, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans can forget their ‘national sovereignty’ for good – or, will it be so? If SOFA dictates that US soldiers, supposedly on a rest and relaxation mode, can loiter about in their official uniforms, and still carry their guns and weapons, and also not be governed not by Sri Lankan laws for criminal offences on Sri Lankan territory, other nations seeking similar R & R agreements with Sri Lanka may demand likewise, whether or not they have use for such a deal, or even have a draft of a deal to produce, if sought.

Five hubs

In a way, there is nothing wrong in the Government offering SOFA deal to the US, or even Habmantota territory to China. After all, on converting Sri Lanka into ‘five hubs’ for international investors and users, to help the nation’s economy to prosper, there is no political differences of opinion. First outlined in Rajapaksa’s ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ election manifesto for 2005, rival Wickremesinghe’s UNP too has adopted a positive approach to what could be described as a ‘national game-plan’.

The five hubs, after all, involve the nation offering maritime, naval and air facilities, among others, to third nations, thus bringing in forex – supposedly in a big and continuing way. To the extent that at Hambantota, China planned to set up a bunkering facility for ocean-liners, it sounded fine on paper – or, so it seemed. But for China to own Sri Lankan territory, even if (only) for 99 years, mean a whole lot of different things.

The fact that even Sri Lankans would not have access to that part of Hambantota makes it not only controversial but also uncomfortable. It is this and this more than any other aspect of the debt-equity swap on Hambantota that is the cause for concern in neighbouring India. By blaming it all on the Rajapaksas and passing clearing the swap-deal in double quick-time, the Wickremesinghes of the world have invited the rest of the world to Sri Lanka – unwanted, possibly, otherwise!

It is in this context that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans need to view the proposed MCC (‘Millennium Challenge Corporation) agreement with the US, which is development, not military, in content and context. If China is ‘entitled’ to Hambantota port, project and territory, why can’t the US expect lesser facilities viz the Colombo-Trincomallee highway project? If criticism of the US on MCC is to a ‘third-nation’ possibly taking dubious ownership of Sri Lankan territory, one way or the other, has it not happened in Hambantota, viz China?

If it’s only about the ‘five hubs’, then there has to be equality and equity in terms of foreign investors and/or users of Sri Lanka-offered facility. More than that, there has to be greater transparency, as all commercial agreements should be accessible to Sri Lankan people and Parliament to know and question the Government(s) about.

Curiously, on Hambantota, neither the Rajapaksas, nor the Wickremesinghes, not even the all-protesting Sirisenas of the world, have no complaints, as with the rest. Does it mean that Hambantota was not one of those ‘five hubs’ projects as originally projected to be? If so, what exactly was it, and is it since?

Yet, unlike the Hambantota project, the MCC proposal, at least as of now, does not qualify to be one of the five-hub schemes. It can compare closer to all those China-funded highways, not that either of them can be dismissed as those that Sri Lanka does not require, now or ever.

The closest that may come to Hambantota is the India-proposed development of the eastern Trincomallee port and town, which is more transparent than any other foreign-funded project in the country. Considering that Japan and Singapore are also likely partners, in this, there can only be greater transparency, not lesser.

It is sad that despite the urgent and undeniable need for development, successive governments, independent of political ideology and identities, have been parcelling off Sri Lankan territory, as if it were real estate in the exclusive commercial sense of the term, for all-comers to buy, build and own. This will have other consequences, as Sri Lanka begin getting new Governments, and newer global players, seek their own pound of flesh – or, piece of Sri Lankan land.

Voluntary withdrawal

It is also here SOFA is in military terms what Hambantota was/is in non-military (developmental?) terms. Whether or not, MCC is an American version of Hambantota, SOFA can trigger such other requests/offers from China and the rest. Sri Lanka cannot enter those untested waters without having some idea of the long-term consequences, not only for the nation’s sovereignty but more so for national and geo-strategic security.

There is something that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans can still muse over, viz the larger Indian neighbour. Yes, India did send in IPKF, on request from the all-powerful Sri Lankan President of the day, the late J R Jayewardene. Yet, it pulled out without batting an eyelid, when a successor President in Ranasinghe Premadasa, asked IPKF to get out.

India also sent in their Navy to help out Sri Lanka at the height of Boxer Day tsuami destruction in 2004. Without having to have a base in Sri Lanka, India could rush massive help and assistance within hours. Better still, Indian Navy went back home, happy and contended, having completed the humanitarian task on hand, without hanging around even for a day more than required.

Can Sri Lanka expect such voluntary withdrawal of the Indian kind from other nations, especially if a SOFA or an MCC were to usher in other nations, their navies and militaries, to Sri Lankan territory, purportedly to assist in development, or for their troops to rest and relax – and do nothing more? If you have clear and transparent answers for the question, then you can have China and the US, Russia and whoever that wants a piece of Sri Lankan territory, Sri Lankan sovereignty – not otherwise.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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