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International relations

US-Sri Lanka military negotiations hit a roadblock

Colombo flustered as it balances its relations with China, India and Japan

The assistance Sri Lanka received from many nations during its civil war is making it difficult for Colombo to favor one of them, the U.S.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- The U.S. government's new military blueprint in the Indian Ocean is facing headwinds in Sri Lanka, a strategically located South Asian island also being courted by India, China and Japan in a scramble for geopolitical influence.

In the crosshairs is a Status of Forces Agreement initially signed by the countries in 1995, paving the way for the U.S. military to access Sri Lanka for logistics. But Washington's push to negotiate a new military cooperation deal under the SOFA, which lays out a raft of protections and privileges for visiting U.S. troops, has come under intense scrutiny.

It is proving an embarrassment to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who leads the pro-American wing of Sri Lanka's deeply divided ruling coalition. He has been accused of caving to the U.S. by President Maithripala Sirisena, leading members of the business community and ultranationalists.

Even officials within Colombo's foreign policy establishment are perturbed. They reckon closer military ties with the U.S. under the terms being negotiated will lead Sri Lanka to be "sucked into military competition" in the future.

"We cannot be seen aligned to one side of any future tensions in our region, because that will cramp our diplomatic options," a foreign ministry official told the Nikkei Asian Review. "A nod to a SOFA with the U.S. opens the door for our other allies like China, India or even Russia to lean on Sri Lanka to sign similar deals. Do we say no to them?"

Such sentiments mark a change of tack from Sri Lanka's appreciation of foreign military assistance during its nearly three-decade-long civil war, pitting government troops against Tamil Tiger separatists, which ended in May 2009. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. put aside their deep differences and aided Sri Lankan troops in their final assault on the Tigers.

According to Adm. Jayanath Colombage, a former navy commander, "The most important intelligence to destroy the [arms supplying] Tamil Tiger ships came from the U.S." Since the war ended, security ties were forged under a different beat, he said, referring to naval vessels from regional and global powers dropping anchor in Sri Lanka's three ports.

Indian, Japanese and Chinese naval vessels top the list of nearly 500 warships that have visited over the past decade. Meanwhile, Australia, Japan, India, China and the U.S. have bolstered Sri Lanka's naval assets by delivering patrol boats, Coast Guard cutters and frigates.

A Sri Lankan marine stands guard in front of Japanese helicopter carrier Kaga docked at Colombo port. Japan, along with India and China, have many ships going into the port.   © Reuters

But suspicion has dogged the U.S. efforts to change the ground rules of future naval visits. In some ultranationalist quarters there is fear that a new agreement will pave the way for Washington to set up military bases. Lawyers opposed to the deal have raised the alarm of U.S. troops enjoying extraterritoriality. Media commentators have questioned provisions for private military contractors from the U.S. being given diplomatic immunity.

The SOFA negotiations come in the wake of another military arrangement, the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement, which both countries signed in 2017 after the lapse of the previous ACSA, first signed in 2007. ACSA caters to naval vessels visiting Sri Lankan ports.

Iqbal Athas, a veteran defense analyst, said the ACSA deal and SOFA talks are meant to "enhance a greater American military footprint in Sri Lanka." He added that they are striking a raw nerve with the public because contentious details were kept under wraps.

"These agreements acquired a surreptitious character, with revealing clauses smuggled through the cabinet and not openly discussed," he said. "The new ACSA is open-ended and will go on forever, and the SOFA allows U.S. troops to carry weapons, wear uniforms and carry communication equipment when in Sri Lanka."

Observers say that the U.S. government's rush to seal a deal is also fueled by looming presidential election, where the coalition faces an uncertain future due to rapidly growing public discontent over its dysfunctional record.

"The intention is to get the SOFA signed before the 2019 elections," says Bernard Goonetilleke, chairman of the Pathfinder Foundation, a Sri Lankan international affairs think tank. "It is unlikely that the U.S. will want to delay it until there is a new government in power."

Alaina B. Teplitz, the U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka, has upped her public diplomacy. She dismissed the charge about a planned military base and argued that Washington's agenda was not to undermine Sri Lanka's sovereignty.

"What we would like to see is a very strong, capable and sovereign Sri Lanka, well able to defend its shores and control its waters, keep the airspace open so that all nations can transit and everybody is following the rules and norms of the international order," she told Rupavahini, Sri Lanka's state-owned TV broadcaster.

Her language echoes the text in the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, a blueprint that U.S. President Donald Trump initially mentioned in 2017 and was unveiled two months ago by the U.S. Department of Defense. Built around three pillars -- security, economic and governance -- the Indo-Pacific strategy makes no secret that it is Washington's response to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

China's multibillion dollar infrastructure ventures in Sri Lanka as well as the island's geography have made Washington covetous as the U.S. tries to stretch its sphere of influence from its own West Coast to India's. Western diplomatic sources in Colombo say China's expanding economic stakes in Sri Lanka have also prompted Japan and Australia to step up their defense cooperation with Sri Lanka.

This geopolitical sea change does not warrant a hostile reception, said Harinda Vidanage, director of the Colombo-based Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, given the expected increase of American naval traffic in the Indian Ocean. "No Sri Lankan leader has defied U.S. interests," he said. "We have always managed and engaged the U.S."

"The last thing Sri Lanka needs now is to make an enemy of the U.S. -- it won't help."

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