The United States, Sri Lanka and the SoFA: A Matter of Balancing China?

17 July 2019 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indian Ocean research Programme

Background

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled his proposed visit to Sri Lanka on his tour of the Indo-Pacific region towards the end of June, during which he visited three countries. The US Embassy in Colombo stated that the cancellation was due to “unavoidable scheduling conflicts” and that Secretary Pompeo regretted that he could not visit Colombo at that time. On the face of it that was plausible enough – diplomatic visits across the globe are frequently cancelled or re-scheduled for many reasons – but rumours swirled in Colombo that Secretary Pompeo was showing his annoyance at not being able to formally forge a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) with Colombo.

While there could be some truth to that claim, there is a larger issue involved, that of Washington’s plans to counter China in the Indian Ocean region. It is more likely that Secretary Pompeo was annoyed (assuming that he was at all), because his efforts in that regard had been temporarily thwarted. That matter deserves closer attention.

Comment

A previous FDI paper noted that, due to its economic downturn, the United States was seeking to balance China in the Indian Ocean by entering into partnerships with like-minded democracies in the region. The validity of the saying that “a week is a long time in politics” is underscored by the turn of events in the three years that have passed since then. At the time, Washington had two major reasons for remaining in the Indian Ocean. It sought, first, to maintain the security of the energy products that were being shipped from the Middle East via the Indian Ocean. Second, but not far behind, it aimed to balance China’s increasing presence in the ocean.

Washington’s dependence on its energy imports from the Middle East has decreased since then, but under the Trump Administration its need to balance and even counter China in the Indian Ocean has grown. Although its economy is now in the ascendant, Washington still wishes to create an alliance of sorts with regional democracies to further that effort.

Sri Lanka makes an ideal partner for the United States in that regard. The country’s then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeking to end its civil war between indigenous Sri Lankans and the Tamilians, whose ancestors had been brought into the country by its British colonisers, sought China’s help. After the war ended, China lent Sri Lanka vast sums of money, loans that the small country could not service. China consequently gained control of Hambantota Port on a lease for 99 years. The port, it is generally believed, forms part of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy designed to contain India and, simultaneously, forms part of its Belt-Road Initiative. To some extent, it also gives China the ability to ensure the security of its vital energy imports from the Middle East. If Washington could turn Colombo against Beijing, therefore, it would be a body blow to the latter’s prestige and standing in the region.

There are other reasons why Washington would like to have a military base in Sri Lanka. For one, a base there would enable it to keep an eye on Chinese maritime traffic passing close to Sri Lanka and connecting with the Middle East and Africa.. It could also reduce China’s influence in the region by keeping watch over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which China could use to pipe oil and liquefied natural gas from Iran to its western provinces, so as to mitigate the US and Indian threats to its energy shipments using tankers.

There is, additionally, another reason for acquiring a base in Sri Lanka. The current US base in the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was acquired by forcibly displacing the native Chagossian people, has recently received unwanted and unfavourable international attention. There is the possibility that the island and its base could be returned to the Chagos people. If that occurs, the US would require another base to allow it to retain its influence in the Indian Ocean. It is likely that Washington will have simultaneously approached the Maldives and Seychelles as well as Sri Lanka in that regard.

Colombo and Washington had previously entered into the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement in 2007 and renewed it in 2017. That agreement provided for joint military co-operation between the two countries and included logistical support, supplies, services and the use of airports and ports to deal with “unforeseen circumstances”. While the 2007 version permitted US military vessels to dock in Sri Lanka ports on a “one-off” basis, the 2017 version appears to have extended that facility.

Secretary Pompeo has also approached Colombo with a new agreement, the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA), to establish a military base in Sri Lanka. That proposal was met with conflicting responses in Colombo. Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, announced he would not allow his government to conclude a military deal that would allow US troops free access to Sri Lankan ports, saying: ‘I will not allow the SoFA that seeks to betray the nation. Some foreign forces want to make Sri Lanka one of their bases. I will not allow them to come into the country and challenge our sovereignty.’ His pro-Western Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, told parliament that SoFA would only define each country’s military rights and privileges and would not establish terms for joint missions or bases, a point that the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka also noted.

The conflict in their views on this matter could possibly be one outcome of the continuing friction between the two leaders. After Mr Sirisena was elected to the office of president, overthrowing Mr Rajapaksa, he appointed Mr Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Following a financial scandal in which Mr Wickremesinghe sought to implicate Mr Rajapaksa’s family, President Sirisena feared he could lose the support of a coalition party, which would see his government toppled. He announced that Mr Rajapaksa would become prime minister and Mr Wickremesinghe would be removed from office. Mr Wickremesinghe initiated legal proceedings against that move and, following rulings by the Supreme and Appeals courts, was re-instated in December 2018. The current disagreement between the two about the SoFA appears to be a continuation of that feud.

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