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Sri Lanka’s Quest for Strategic Prominence in the Indian Ocean

At the Galle Dialogue, Sri Lanka tries to carve out a role for itself in the South Asian littorals.

Sri Lanka’s Quest for Strategic Prominence in the Indian Ocean

The U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) maneuvers into formation with the Sri Lankan navy medium endurance cutter Sayura (620, and the offshore patrol vessel Samudura (621) while departing Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jordan KirkJohnson

Last week, Sri Lanka hosted the eighth iteration of the Galle Dialogue – a meeting of regional navies held every year at the eponymous southern coastal city. Over the past few years, the conference has emerged as an important fixture on the Asian maritime calendar, and a key venue for consultation and dialogue among senior naval officers from regional littoral states and beyond.

Traditionally, the conference has focused on common security themes in the Indian Ocean littorals, as also the search for cooperative solutions. Through this forum, Sri Lanka has sought not only to stress its critical geographical location at the crossroads of important Indian Ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs), but also to display a catalytic ability to spur regional collaboration in securing the vulnerable commons. For some time now, Colombo has been eager to play a larger role in the South Asian littorals – both to protect the proximate sea–routes, and also to establish a stronger maritime presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean (the sea off Banda Aceh and the Strait of Malacca). In doing so, the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) has sought a cooperative relationship with its regional partners – most of all, the Indian Navy, which has been more than generous with training, capacity building, and naval assets.

Even though the dialogue each year has centered on nontraditional security issues, there has always been a hint of geopolitics in its conduct. Beyond the outward demonstration of cooperation and amity, the tenor of discussions has reflected the changing nature of power equations in the Indian Ocean. In 2011 and 2012 , for instance, when Colombo was in the process of building a close relationship with China, the subject of the conference was “strategic maritime partnerships” in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Sri Lanka, it then appeared, was supporting China’s attempts to legitimize its presence in the region.  A year later, as New Delhi objected to Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine deployments in Colombo, the theme at subsequent dialogues in 2014 and 2015 changed to “collaborative approaches in the Indian Ocean.”

This year, Sri Lanka’s strategic ties in the IOR were in focus again. With media reports of the sale of over 80 percent of assets in Hambantota port to China, and a rise in PLAN deployments in the Eastern Indian Ocean, Sino-Sri Lankan relations have been a subject of intense speculation in Asian strategic circles. In September 2014 when a PLAN sub docked at Colombo, New Delhi officially protested, even reminding Sri Lanka of its obligation to inform India’s political leadership about such activities. An increasing dependence on Beijing for investment and military aid, however, curtailed Colombo’s ability to limit China’s influence in Sri Lanka’s economic and maritime policy.

As expected, Beijing’s contribution to the prosperity of the Indian Ocean was an important subject of discussion at this year’s dialogue. The Chinese leadership has been keen to pitch its economic and infrastructure proposals to Indian Ocean states, even in security-focused forums, and Sri Lanka has always been obliging. When Rear Admiral Wang Dazhong, the Chinese delegate at the dialogue, highlighted the importance of the Maritime Silk Road in bringing together “various economy blocks along the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean,” his hosts were seen nodding in eager agreement.

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This is not to say that Colombo is seeking to curry favor with Beijing. The challenge for Sri Lanka, as earlier, is to establish a state of relative equilibrium in its relations with India and China. On more than one occasion, Ranil Wickramasinghe, the Sri Lankan premier, has stated his government’s determination to give equal space to India and China on its maritime periphery. Despite recognizing its special relationship with New Delhi, however, Colombo has been helpless in the face of a mounting China debt. With more than a third of government revenue going toward servicing Chinese loans (interest payments to the tune of about $8.2 billion annually) the Sri Lankan leadership has had little choice but to prioritize China’s geopolitical interests. Notwithstanding early efforts to restore strategic balance in a three-sided relationship with New Delhi and Beijing, President Maithripala Sirisena has found his options severely constrained.

To add to Colombo’s discomfiture, China has been trying to prop up Sri Lanka’s political opposition. A few days before the start of the dialogue, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Beijing, where he spoke about the Sirisena regime’s supposed bias toward India. Colombo’s vanity received another blow when Yi Xianliang, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, wondered aloud why Colombo sought more loans from Beijing if it found them “expensive.” These developments bespeak a brewing tension between Colombo and Beijing, reminding Sri Lankan policymakers that Chinese largesse comes with strings attached.

For its part, India seems to have adopted a wait-and-watch approach in the neighborhood. Speaking at the dialogue, Admiral Sunil Lanba, the naval chief, explained how strategic trends in the nautical domain were shaping India’s maritime priorities and partnerships. Globalization, energy security, nontraditional threats, and climate change, he noted, were the principal determinants of India’s security role in the Indian Ocean. Stressing the importance of combined operations, he observed that regional partnerships could only be successful if states took an integrated view of the region, recognizing local patterns of relations and interactions.

The highlight at Galle, however, was a talk by Admiral Harry Harris, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) chief, and the first American four-star officer to visit Sri Lanka. Harris emphasized U.S. security role and partnerships in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, reserving a special mention for Washington’s maritime relationship with Colombo. Sri Lanka, he noted, was a significant contributor to the rules-based Indian Ocean system, and a good example of a like-minded U.S. partner in the Indian Ocean Region. Indeed, with U.S. Marines now training Sri Lankan Special Forces, the U.S.-Sri Lanka defense partnership seems to be at an all-time high – a striking reversal from a time when Washington openly taunted Colombo in international forums, impugning the latter’s human rights record.

For Indian watchers, Harris’ talk was indicative of U.S. resolve to remain embedded in South Asia’s maritime security architecture. The PACOM chief’s observation that “the Indian Ocean matters to the United States, Sri Lanka matters to the United States, and that the United States matters to Sri Lanka,” was confirmation (if any was needed) that Washington still saw itself as the principal arbiter of security in the Indian Ocean.

Despite these, and many other takeaways, the crucial question for India following this year’s dialogue remains the same: What is the larger purpose of organizing a high-profile event such as the Galle dialogue? Is it to genuinely enhance maritime cooperation? Or is it a tacit means to showcase maritime ambitions? Do such events, in fact, seek to enhance the host state’s strategic and political ties by advancing the interests of particular partners?

For the lay observer, forums like Galle are useful in creating consensus in tackling common challenges in the maritime domain. For astute realists, however, such dialogues offer an opportunity for smaller states to exploit the tides of geopolitics and leverage the shifting balance of power. New Delhi’s misplaced endorsement of an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZOP) proposal during the 2014 Galle Dialogue, critics aver, ignored the dire implications of a similar idea advanced by Sri Lanka in the early 1970s to furtively circumscribe India’s growing maritime influence in South Asia. New Delhi, the skeptics say, is still oblivious to hidden agendas behind seemingly benign propositions.

If anything, the discussions at Galle point to the need for New Delhi to come up with creative and imaginative solutions to existing challenges that highlight India’s centrality to regional security initiatives. In doing so, Indian maritime policy makers must seek to expand their room for political maneuver, by raising the Indian Navy’s security involvement in the IOR’s distant littorals.

While the need for the IN to cooperate constructively in addressing common challenges at sea is indisputable, New Delhi must formulate an effective hedging strategy against growing geopolitical uncertainties in the IOR. It must promote a model of inter-state collaboration that draws on the Indian Navy’s cooperative maritime strategy, cultivating a network of allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific domain. This could be useful in both preserving Indian influence in the IOR, as also in sharing the security burden in the regional commons.

The growing popularity of the Galle Dialogue is a cautionary for India that if New Delhi does not raise its game in its maritime neighborhood and wield the mantle of leadership, someone else will — even tiny Sri Lanka.

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Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Fellow in New Delhi.