Colombo, April 1 (newsin.asia): Growing defence ties between India and Japan, with the US in the background, are likely to have an impact on Sri Lanka’s defense choices, as the island nation is situated right next door to India and bang on the main sea route between the East and the West, writes P.K.Balachandran in DailyFT.
The confluence of India, US and Japan, is already reflected in the increasing attention the navies of these countries are giving to Sri Lanka.
With the US gradually withdrawing from its role as the dominant power and chief keeper of the law in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, the responsibility to maintain rule-based free navigation and
maritime security has fallen on the shoulders of its ally, Japan, and its strategic partner, India. And Japan, as an established world trading nation, and India as an aspiring regional economic power house, are ready to take up the role.
The reasons are not far to seek: China has turned out to be a humongous power, flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, directly challenging Japan and the US, and making a determined bid to establish itself in countries surrounding India, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The Chinese have built a port at Kyaukpyu in Myanmar; at Gwadar in Pakistan; and are bidding strongly for an 80% stake for 99 years in the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka which they had built earlier. These
ports are to be part of the Chinese multi-nation One Belt One Road (OBOR) project which has a strategic as well as a commercial aspect.
China’s pushing its way into Sri Lanka, spending $ 8 billion to build infrastructure to support its ambitious global OBOR project, is worrying Japan. Already facing a serious challenge from China in the
South China Sea, Japan has been trying hard to see that Sri Lanka does not become a Chinese client state.
Japan has adopted a two-pronged strategy to keep the Chinese dragon at bay in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The first is to enhance its economic and security related engagement with Sri Lanka; the second is to strengthen its defence and economic ties with India; and thirdly is to weave a Japan-Sri Lanka-US alliance to checkmate China.
In September 2014, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Colombo and the two leaders agreed to establish the Japan-Sri Lanka dialogue on maritime security.
Rajapaksa sought Japanese assistance for harbour construction and Abe thanked Rajapaksa for allowing Japanese naval ships to make port calls and interact with the Sri Lankan Navy.
On 28 May 2016, Abe and the new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who met at Nagoya in Japan, recognised the importance of port development in Sri Lanka. Abe expressed his intention to send
survey missions to study the needs and the logistics for hub development of the North Port of Colombo and its surrounding areas, as well as the development of Trincomalee port.
They approved a project for Maritime Safety Capability Improvement, worth approximately 1.8 billion yen or $ 11.8 million, that included a provision for the supply of two patrol vessels to Sri Lanka.
Underscoring Colombo’s importance as a port of call, there have been no less than 55 port calls by Japanese vessels since 2009.
In March this year, the Japanese Navy participated in a humanitarian relief and rescue exercise off Hambantota harbour along with the Sri Lankan, Australian and US navies. In July, Japan’s largest naval
vessel, the helicopter carrier Izumo would be calling at Colombo enroute to India to join the Malabar exercise with the US and Indian navies. It is seen as a show of Japan’s naval strength.
The Japanese security expert, Dr. Satoru Nagao, has advised Sri Lankans to align themselves with US, India and Japan, to resist China’s maritime schemes. Nagao recalled that China has always filled a vacuum and would dominate areas and set its own rules if allowed to do so.
Giving examples, he said that in the 1950s, when France withdrew from Vietnam, China occupied half of the Paracel Islands, and when the US withdrew from Vietnam, it occupied the rest. When the Soviets left Vietnam, China occupied the Spratly Island. When the US withdrew from the Philippines, China occupied the Mischief Reef. China is now building artificial islands which could be used as air bases. Nagao advised Sri Lankans to take with a pinch of salt China’s assurance that it will not use for military purposes the ports it builds or manages.
India strengthens defence ties with Japan
Meanwhile, India has shown great interest in strengthening its defence ties with Japan. The two countries have been working on an Indo-Pacific Strategy which envisages a corridor between Asia and
Africa through the Indian Ocean. Japan is keen on the Bay of Bengal Strategic Growth Belt on the pattern of China’s One Belt One Road project. India and Japan are considering the establishment of “Smart
Islands” and the development of the Andaman and Nicobar islands as strategic outposts.
Indo-Japanese ties, which were already growing under the Prime Ministership of Manmohan Singh, got a boost with Narendra Modi taking over from him in mid-2014. Under Modi and Abe, bilateral relations
became a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.”
Apart from a Japanese commitment to give India $ 33.5 billion of public and private funds over the next five years, talks were initiated on the sale of 12 U-2 seaplanes for maritime defence. The deal is likely to be signed with the Japanese bringing down the price from US$ 133 million per unit to $ 113 million. The plane, which can be operated in rough seas as well as rivers and lakes, is to be made in India. The planes will be especially useful in the Andaman Islands which are 700 miles off the Indian mainland. There is a sense of urgency about acquiring U-2 because China has announced that it has built the world’s largest flying boat, the AG600.
India is interested in getting Japan’s sophisticated defense technology. Japanese companies have sold gyroscopes for the US Patriot 2 Advanced missile interceptors. It has sold sensor equipment for British guided missiles. A submarine deal with Australia had been discussed. France had bought Japanese underwater drones which can operate in radioactive zones. Prime Minister Modi is said to be interested in Japanese made ultra-quiet non-nuclear attack submarines.
India ropes in Sri Lanka
The first meeting of the Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation (TMSC) between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, took place in 2010, a year after Eelam War IV ended. The then Indian National Security
Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, felt that Sri Lanka should be made a part of a regional effort to ensure maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), instead of allowing it to go the whole hog with China.
In the Trilateral meetings, attention was given to Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA); use of the Indian Long Range Identification and Data Centre; use of the Merchant Shipping Information System and Sharing the Automatic Identification System data in a trilateral format. India was to serve as the nodal point as well as the technology and training provider.
Sri Lanka was aware of the Indian bid to take over the function of providing maritime security, this side of the Indian Ocean. In one of the earliest conferences, the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya
Rajapaksa said that the system devised by India stemmed from suspicions about China’s aims in the region, a fear shared by the Americans. Rajapaksa suggested that to modify Indian influence and prevent China and other countries -namely Pakistan – looking at the grouping as an alliance serving the Indian interest, other countries should be invited to participate as observers. But as expected no one listened.
India had itself expanded the network having roped in Mauritius and Seychelles but these were pro-Indian states. According to the Indian defence expert Dr. C. Raja Mohan, India had given eight radars each to Mauritius and Seychelles; six to Sri Lanka and ten to the Maldives. It has given a Dornier aircraft and an OPV to Mauritius. “India considers the Indian Ocean as its strategic turf,” observed Prof. S. D.Muni, a Distinguished Fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA). “Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India will use its strengths in the Indian Ocean Region and take on the attendant responsibilities,” asserted Dr. Raja Mohan. Apart from holding joint exercises with the Sri Lankan navy under the SLINEX series, India sent its aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya in January 2016 to show its might. Its survey ship INS Darshak will be working in the Hambantota port in July this year.
(The featured image above shows an US carrier and Indian jets at a Malabar exercise)