India going by its age old principle of non-inference has maintained that it would respect any decision made by Colombo.
The geographic location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean is quite strategic. Located at the southern tip of India, all the important maritime routes in the region pass through Sri Lankan ports. It is an economically booming region mainly due to the rapid development of two giants: India and China, 70% of the global oil trade and more than 50% of container traffic pass through the Indian Ocean. This sea route is operational with 36,000 ships passing through Sri Lanka’s southern Port of Hambantota annually, including 4,500 oil tankers.
The geostrategic location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean has been the main reason of China’s interest as the largest investor and influencer for the past decade. The Chinese rapid expansion in the country following an integrated policy of economic development and military expansion has been a major headache for New Delhi for many years. The series of ports in the Indian Ocean Region, spreading from Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Pakistan, encircling India has been of an alarming concern which may loom towards regional instability and the rise of Chinese hegemon.
The Hambantota Lease:
Situated on the southern edge of Sri Lanka, the Hambantota port has a huge maritime significance for Beijing. Most of the Sea Lines of Communication pass through the port and form the key link to the China’s Belt and Road Project. The 99 year lease agreement of the portin favour of China validates its ‘debt-trap policy’. China may use the port for commercial as well as a military base. The scale of investments done by China clearly suggests its strategic goals. However, Colombo has been in denial and reiterates its full control over the port.
Renewed American Interest:
United States has long been interested in its presence in Sri Lanka. The Chinese arrival in the Indian Ocean littorals and the realisation of its support by India and Sri Lanka in its missions in Gulf and South China Sea has made the Western Power to rethink its policy in the region.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his U.S counterpart have been recently discussing a series of draft agreements which could result in major defence deals. These agreements give unrestricted access to U.S forces in Sri Lankan facilities along with diplomatic immunity.
Status of forces (sofa) agreement:
The agreement is between a host country and foreign nation stationing military forces in that country. It establishes the rights and privileges of foreign personnel present in a host country in support of the larger security arrangement. It differs from military occupation.
Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (Acsa):
This agreement is entered upon a bilateral basis with United States allies or coalition partners that allow US forces to exchange most common types of support, including food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment.
Millennium Challenge Corporation (Mcc): MCC is a separate aid agency of United States established by the Congress in 2004. MCC has pledged to work closely with Sri Lanka and also propose a $ 480 million aid. MCC has put Sri Lanka in its priority list.
Any such agreement could jeopardise security and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The opposition and people have come down heavily on the Prime Minister Wickramasinghe over the proposed military pact. Protests have erupted in the country over the controversy. The relationship between the Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and the President Maithripala Sirisena has further worsened especially after Easter Bombing in April. President Srisena has expressed maintained that he would not sign any agreement which could compromise National sovereignty. This agreement could deeply influence the Presidential Elections which are to be held later this year. There is a clear polarity between the two heads; with Prime Minister having inclination towards the western power.Defence deal of such a nature could make Sri Lanka as a battleground of a strategic rivalry between U.S and China. Russia joining hands with China in the region to counter its traditional adversaryU.S may not be ruled out.
Implications for India:
Strategic community in India is keenly watching the developments in the region. India going by its age old principle of non-inference has maintained that it would respect any decision made by Colombo. A strategic neighbour down south, India has deep relations with Sri Lanka and is more than 2500 years old. However the presence of the Chinese been a headache for Indian security. The openness of China about its naval forces in Indian Ocean has been the worry for India. Sri Lanka is considered to be the diamond in the String of Pearls. The U.S- Sri Lanka pact could definitely decipher the Beijing’s hegemonic intentions in the region and would end the Indian fears of Chinese expansion.
(Author works as a Geo Political Risk Analyst)