Two defense cooperation agreements between the United States and Sri Lanka, the already signed Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the under-negotiation Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), are triggering concern, criticism, and controversy in the Indian Ocean island.
Neither pact is new. SOFA was first signed in 1995. Apparently, the United States asked Sri Lanka for a new pact and sent a draft to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in August 2018.
The “agreement under discussion appears aimed at streamlining clearance procedures for visiting U.S. military personnel,” Nilanthi Samaranayake, director of strategy and policy analysis at CNA, a non-profit research organization in the Washington area, told The Diplomat.
According to a leaked copy of the U.S. draft, which was reproduced in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times on June 30, American security forces and civilian personnel of the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD), as well as U.S. contractors and their non-Sri Lankan employees “who may be temporarily present in Sri Lanka in connection with ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities, and other activities” will have “privileges, exemptions, and immunities” equivalent to those accorded to administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission. They would be “authorized to wear uniforms while performing official duties and to carry arms while on duty.” U.S. identification would be sufficient for their entry into and exit from Sri Lanka; that is, they would not need a Sri Lankan visa to enter the country. U.S. vessels, vehicles, and aircraft would be allowed to “exit and move freely within the territory of Sri Lanka” and be “free from boarding and inspection” by Sri Lankan security personnel. The United States also wants exemption from licenses, customs duties, taxes, and other charges within Sri Lanka.
A section of Sri Lankan analysts and some members of the opposition in Parliament have described the proposed SOFA as “a very serious infringement on the country’s sovereignty.”
Located near the southern tip of India and to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka’s strategic significance stems from its location in the Indian Ocean. Just 6-10 nautical miles south of Sri Lanka runs the East-West shipping route, through which ply over 60,000 ships carrying two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of all container shipments. Additionally, Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka is among the finest natural harbors in the world.
It is not surprising, then, that Sri Lanka has emerged as a major battleground for influence between big powers. Given its proximity to India, Delhi considers Sri Lanka to be part of its sphere of influence and has opposed strategic rivals from expanding their influence in the island. Despite this, over the past decade, China’s presence in Sri Lanka has grown manifold. Beijing’s growing role in Sri Lanka — it has managed to secure a 99-year lease over Hambantota port, among other things — stems from its need to protect its economic and strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. As for the United States, its interest in Sri Lanka has mounted along with China’s growing clout in the island.
Additionally, a section of Sri Lankan analysts believe that should the U.S. lose its naval base in Diego Garcia, “it will require an alternate base. That could be Sri Lanka.”
It is in this context that some of the opposition to ACSA and SOFA should be seen. This has led to apprehensions that these pacts could pave the way for a U.S. naval base in Sri Lanka, even turn the island into an “an American military colony.”
Dismissing such allegations as “blatant misinformation,” U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina B. Teplitz tweeted that “there is no plan or intention to establish a U.S. base in Sri Lanka.” The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), as the Americans like to refer to SOFA (perhaps to make the American forces’ stay in Sri Lanka appear temporary), she said, aimed at facilitating bilateral cooperation and would “fully respect the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.”
SOFA “establishes the framework for U.S. military personnel visiting Sri Lanka at the invitation of the government, and is designed to address a number of red tape issues,” Teplitz said in a subsequent interview. Citing the example of the 2017 floods, when the Sri Lankan government sought American help, Teplitz said that relief supplies were delayed on account of bureaucratic red tape. The proposed pact, she said, would facilitate timely supply of such relief in future emergency situations.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament that SOFA was still under discussion and that his government would not sign an agreement that impacted the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
However, Sri Lankans remain skeptical. Part of the problem is that “there is little information in the public domain” on the agreements’ “specifics.”
As John Gooneratne, a former ambassador in the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed out, although ACSA and SOFA have figured frequently in Sri Lanka’s mainstream and social media in recent months, there “has not been talk about ACSA and SOFA’s” contents. Rather, “it has been about using these pacts as a stick to beat up the government,” he told The Diplomat.
Fuelling suspicion over SOFA’s contents and implications for Sri Lanka is the surreptitious manner in which ACSA was renewed. First signed in 2007, ACSA expired on March 5, 2017 and was renewed on August 4, 2017.
Broadly, ACSA allows the United States and Sri Lanka to transfer and exchange logistics supplies, support, and refueling services, either in kind or at cost during peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations, or joint exercises.
Critics point out that Sri Lankan officials were in an inordinate hurry to get ACSA renewed. It was rushed through Cabinet even before commanders of the armed forces could provide their views on the pact. If ACSA’s text was indeed “harmless” and not a “danger to the country,” as claimed by the then-Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, why was the text of the pact kept secret? Besides, only a truncated Sinhala version of the original draft that was provided to members of Cabinet. Annexes were not included. Why was the full text kept away from them?
Although ACSA promises the United States and Sri Lanka “reciprocal” rights, it is hard to ignore the fact that in effect it is an arrangement that benefits the U.S. far more than Sri Lanka. Unlike the United States, which has a heavy military presence in the Indian Ocean and is thus likely to seek Sri Lankan support, Sri Lanka, with its limited naval and military capacity, is hardly likely to require use of American military facilities.
Under fire for the secrecy surrounding the signing of ACSA, Wickremesinghe sought to reassure Parliament in June by saying that the 2017 ACSA is the same as that signed a decade ago. It was renewed “without making changes to its contents,” he said.
However, the 2007 ACSA was eight pages long, unlike the 2017 pact which runs into 83 pages. While the 2007 document permits U.S. military vessels to anchor in Sri Lanka ports on a “one-off” basis, the 2017 ACSA appears to be “open-ended.”
The question is whether Sri Lanka’s long-term security and other interests will be served by signing these pacts with the United States. In the event of hostilities between the United States and China or Iran, SOFA would invariably draw Sri Lanka into a conflict where it may not want to take sides. After all, Colombo has no bilateral quarrels with Iran or China.
Proponents of SOFA and ACSA both in Sri Lanka and the United States would like to see the deals signed and sealed as soon as possible. This may not be easy, as there is strong opposition to the pacts in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government itself is deeply divided on the matter. While the pro-U.S. Wickremesinghe and his United National Party would like to see SOFA signed swiftly, President Maithripala Sirisena, who heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has expressed his opposition to the defense pacts.
Interestingly, when ACSA was signed in 1995, the SLFP was in power, as it was when SOFA was signed in 2007. “That provides the present government with the leeway to proceed with the pacts,” according to Gooneratne.
In a few months Sri Lanka will vote in presidential elections. “So it is vote-catching time and into this [electoral] game has fallen ACSA and SOFA, Gooneratne says.
National security is expected to figure in the election campaigns of the candidates. Indeed, potential candidates and their parties are already articulating positions on ACSA and SOFA, with an eye on their vote base.
What position will Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s candidate in the presidential election, take on ACSA and SOFA? It was Gotabhaya, then Sri Lanka’s defense secretary, who signed ACSA in 2007. The Rajapaksa family’s strong ties with the Chinese are well-known. Gotabhaya’s stand on ACSA and SOFA will be closely watched in Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi.
The likelihood of Sri Lanka and the United States reaching agreement on SOFA may seem bleak at the moment given the strong opposition to it.
However, as Samaranayake points out, proposed defense pacts with the U.S. tend to stir controversy initially. This happened with India, for instance, when the U.S. was pursuing pacts relating to logistics and communications. “New Delhi eventually concluded these agreements,” she observes.
This could be the case with Sri Lanka as well, especially once the political campaigning is over.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.