Nations look to invest in Sri Lanka to counter China’s expansionism
India, Japan, Singapore and the United States are showing increased interest in maritime security and port development projects in Sri Lanka. The desire to balance aggression and territorialism by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is largely behind the attention, analysts said.
India, Japan and Singapore have expressed strong interests in recent months in helping Sri Lanka develop both Colombo and Trincomalee ports, various media outlets have reported, although no specific plans have been released. Trincomalee, a natural deep-water port, is strategically situated on Sri Lanka’s east coast. India is already contributing to road and rail projects in Sri Lanka, Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said at a July 2018 workshop, titled “Connecting the Bay of Bengal: India, Japan, and Regional Cooperation,” and organized by the think tank Carnegie India, The Economic Times newspaper reported.
Many nations in the Indo-Pacific have long worried that PRC infrastructure investment projects such as Hambantota port would be used for military purposes as well as for political and economic leverage. Sri Lanka, trapped by burdensome PRC loan terms, handed over the port to China in late 2017,
Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera reiterated such sentiments during his visit to Sri Lanka in late August 2018, during which he toured three ports, including Hambantota.
“Despite China’s long-term lease, it is internationally acknowledged that the port should be free and open to the public,” he told NHK World, Japan’s public broadcasting organization.
The PRC has continued to extend loans to Sri Lanka in 2018 despite that the International Monetary Fund, which bailed out Sri Lanka in June 2016 with a U.S. $1.5 billion staggered loan, has cautioned Sri Lanka about its debt burden, Agence France-Presse reported.
Onodera’s visit to Sri Lanka was the first by a Japanese defense minister. (Pictured: Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, left, shakes hands with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on August 21, 2018.)
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe highlighted the importance of developing defense ties with Japan after meeting with Onodera, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper reported. Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kazuyuki Nakane arrived in Colombo a week later to attend the launch ceremony of two patrol vessels, worth U.S. $11 million, that Japan donated to the Sri Lanka Coast Guard.
The U.S., for its part, announced August 20, 2018, that it would grant Sri Lanka U.S. $40 million to strengthen maritime security, given PRC’s increasing control of Sri Lankan strategic assets. “We look forward to discussing with the government of Sri Lanka how this contribution can support our Bay of Bengal initiative and Sri Lanka’s humanitarian assistance and disaster response priorities,” the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a prepared statement.
The funds are part of a U.S. $300 million package for South and Southeast Asia to support a “free, open and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to Alice Wells, a high-ranking U.S. State Department official and former ambassador. The package includes U.S. $39 million for Bangladesh and U.S. $17 million for Nepal, Wells said. The U.S. Congress must approve the grants, which are also designed to enhance peacekeeping capabilities and counter transnational crime.
The new U.S. Bay of Bengal Initiative “will enhance the capacity of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to share shipping information with other partners in the region such as India to improve detection and response to emerging threats,” Wells said. “By helping countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka improve their maritime domain awareness capabilities, we can facilitate easier and more secure commerce from the Bay of Bengal to Pacific markets, including the American market.”