Dateline Colombo

Steering Co-operation Across Oceans

15 May, 2017    ·   5284

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera analyses Sri Lanka's role in the world, in the backdrop of the One Belt One Road conference in China

“We should not develop a habit of retreating to the harbour whenever we encounter a storm, for this will never get us to the other side of the ocean.”

                                                        -Xi Jinping, President, People's Republic of China

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which is the size of three football fields and holds the capacity to launch 75 fighter jets at any given time, sailed to the Korean peninsula several weeks ago. US President Donald Trump speaking to the media claimed, "We are sending an armada. Very powerful, we have submarines. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.” It looks like Trump has taken a leaf out of Kissinger’s limited war strategy.

In a 1958 interview, Kissinger advocated the importance of limited warfare and why the US should adopt it. What we are witnessing today is significantly different from 1958 when nuclear deterrence was at the top of the agenda with the erstwhile Soviet Union. 

Asia is going through profound transformations. China is in the process of expanding its blue water navy and seeks domination of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This resonates a familiar chord with the US, which had a similar two ocean strategy in the past that sought US domination over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. 

US Vice President Mike Pence’s first visit to Asia took place against the background of mounting tensions. Its objectives included to reaffirm the US commitment to the region. Pence also wanted to clarify and ensure that the US is compensated as the arbiter of regional security and stability. Finally, the visit was also meant to discuss China’s continued effort to expand its maritime capability in the region, especially in the South China Sea.

Pence described the Pacific situation as “just a very serious time” during his discussion with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He further explained that “The US and Australia face this threat and every other one together, because we know that our security is the foundation of our prosperity.” Both nations agreed to raise pressure on North Korea and seek China’s support. 

The author, as a participant at last year’s Shamgri-La Dialogue, raised a question from the Indian minister of defence regarding the circumstances of another Chinese submarine’s visit to Sri Lanka. Although defence strategies should be considered keeping broader strategic implications in mind, the Indian defence minister replied that they would take this up on a case-by-case basis. 

As China witnesses geopolitical developments, there is a high probability of a sudden appearance of another Chinese submarine in the future. In October 2006, when USS Kitty Hawk was sailing through the East China Sea between southern Japan and Taiwan, a Chinese submarine surfaced without prior warning. The Americans were amazed when the Song-class Attack Submarine surfaced at a torpedo distance. The same sentiments applied when the last Chinese submarine’s appearance in Sri Lanka created tensions between Colombo and New Delhi. According to some experts, Indians exaggerated the event for political purposes to remove the pro-Chinese Rajapaksa government of that time.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka for the UN international Vesak celebrations, a day recognised by the UN after the tremendous effort of late Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s truly visionary former foreign minister. Modi's second visit is a clear indication of the friendship between the leaders of India and Sri Lanka.

After this celebration, Sri Lankan  Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe headed to China for the country’s largest One Belt, One Road (OBOR) conference. Sri Lanka’s strategic role in the Maritime Silk road is an important area, which will be addressed. This happens at a time when the Sri Lankan government is in discussions with India to lease out the tank farm in the east coast harbour of Trincomalee.

136 countries, and 28 heads of states are in Beijing for this large-scale high powered summit. Of the South Asian countries, India will not participate. It is a clear indication of India’s reservations. As explained by Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, "I have no hesitation in saying that we have some serious reservations about it, because of sovereignty issues.” In an expert commentary written for the Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Swaran Singh explained tensions within India’s neighborhood, especially the USD 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in his article titled 'OBOR: Getting India Onboard as a Partner.'  

With such developments, Sri Lanka’s geopolitical role in the Indian Ocean remains crucial and essential to regional and extra regional nations. The OBOR could be seen by some as a platform to side with China. While China is promoting OBOR, the US is seeking to demonstrate to the whole region that it is in China’s best interest to side with Washington. In 1907, US President Theodore Roosevelt sailed his 16 battleships as ‘the great white fleet’ to 20 ports, a mixture of hard and soft power - depicting the military term ‘force projection’ - a factor even proven today from the visit of USS Carl Vinson.

The OBOR project will be welcomed by many countries, particularly to uplift the economies and social conditions of third world states. Countries absent from the processes and events of OBOR could limit global benefits of the Chinese State-led initiative, and as explained by Chinese President Xi Jinping, perhaps, will not see the other side of the ocean.