Colombo, March 16 (www.southasianmonitor.com): Following the construction of a full-fledged port in Hambantota, and a container terminal in Colombo, to be part of China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) global project, world powers are converging on Sri Lanka to ensure that China, the rising behemoth, does not get exclusive rights to use the island’s strategic advantages.
Exploiting the delay in finalizing the controversial deal to give China an 80 percent stake in Hambantota port for 99 years, anti-Chinese powers such as US, Japan, Australia and India, are making a beeline to Sri Lanka’s ports to establish their naval presence there.
This is done in the guise of training for humanitarian work and curbing crimes like human and drug smuggling and piracy.
Bringing to the emerging scenario a sense of urgency, is the recent hijacking by Somali pirates of a cargo vessel having eight Sri Lankans on board. It is significant that this is the first hijacking by Somali pirates after 2012. The resurgence of piracy could be portrayed as an indication that the world, which had apparently stamped it out through united naval action in 2012, cannot rest on its oars and urgent steps have to be taken to make the seas free for unhindered navigation.
And that calls for cooperation between the navies of several countries. Cooperation demands visits by naval vessels to each other’s ports, joint exercises to ensure inter-operability, and creation of better maritime domain awareness through training and information sharing.
On March 6, the US Seventh Fleet’s USNS Fall River sailed into Hambantota for humanitarian relief exercises with the Sri Lankan, Japanese and Australian navies. The first ever Pacific Partnership Exercise was to be held on land as well as the sea till March 18 . It was meant to combine disaster relief with community outreach work to enable an international body of troops to operate smoothly in a foreign land.
Later his month and next month, the Indian naval survey vessel INS Darshak will be doing an underwater survey in the seas off Hambantota, and will call at the port for water and other supplies, Sri Lankan navy chief Adm.Ravindra Wijegunaratne said on Wednesday. In early April, the Japanese Destroyer Teruzuki and the American USNS Comstock will berth at Colombo. USNS Comstock is a landing ship considered essential for military and humanitarian relief operations.
Izumo makes a splash
But what has captured media attention is the proposed visit by the biggest Japanese naval vessel, JSDF Izumo, a helicopter carrier meant to be used in anti-submarine warfare. It will be here in July on route to the US-India-Japan Malabar Exercise off the south western Indian coast. However, the Izumo will dock only at Colombo and not call at Hambantota, Sri Lankan naval chief, Adm.Wijegunaratne said.
Though touted as anti-submarine vessel, Izumo can perform a variety of roles with its 14 choppers. Its launch had created tension in East Asia in the context of the rising tension between Japan and China in the South and East China Seas over freedom of navigation, which has now assumed the dimensions of a global problem involving all powers.
The names Teruzuki and Izumo have reportedly triggered tension in countries which had experienced Japanese aggression in the first half of the 20 th century because they were names of Japanese warships which wrought havoc in East and South East Asia in the early years of World War II.
The present Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been deviating from Japan’s postwar peaceful policies to build its armed forces to face a perceived threat from a rising and pushy China.
Even as it is still deeply involved in developmental assistance in Sri Lanka and other countries, Japan has, of late, shown a perceptible interest in defense cooperation to counter China which is challenging the established maritime order.
Japanese think tanks are now openly suggesting that a Japan-Sri Lanka-India maritime defense alliance is an urgent requirement to counter the Chinese threat to existing maritime rules.
The Japanese navy has not made a secret of its interest in Sri Lanka, particularly, Hambantota. The Chief of Staff of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, Adm.Kawano, visited Sri Lanka in 2014 even when the pro-Chinese Mahinda Rajapaksa was President of the country. The Sri Lankan Defense Ministry had stated at that time that the Japanese were interested in Hambantota harbor given its 17 meter depth. Between 2013 and 2014, 15 Japanese vessels had visited Colombo to befriend Sri Lanka.
Cooperation between Japan and Sri Lanka continued after the change of regime in Colombo in January 2015, with Japan giving US$ 16.3 million for maritime security in 2016. In October 2015, when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Japan, he declared that Sri Lanka would join the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) meant to counter China.
The Malabar Exercise 2017 to be held in the Indian Ocean in July, will give the US, Indian and Japanese navies an annual opportunity to meet and work together on various parameters. This year, Malabar Exercise will be on anti-submarine warfare as Chinese submarines are on the prowl in the Indian Ocean. Lacking land bases overseas, the Chinese are relying on submarines to stretch their power to distant places.
In September and November 2014, two Chinese diesel powered submarines and a nuclear submarine docked at Colombo, the nuclear sub concluding its visit just before the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. This touched off alarms bells in New Delhi which took up the matter with the Rajapaksa regime but only to be snubbed.
Malabar 2017 is to be “bigger and more complex” that the earlier editions. A media report dated December 16, 2016, quotes the US Seventh Fleet’s Commander, Vice Admiral Joseph P.Aucoin, as saying that since the Indian navy is flying P8I ASW (Poseidon), the US navy will fly P-8A.
“I would like those two aircraft working together to hunt submarines. I am looking forward to that in Malabar 2017,” Adm.Aucoin said.
The Malabar Exercise will include carrier strike group operations, maritime petrol and reconnaissance operations, surface and anti-submarine warfare, helicopter operations and Visit Board, Search and Seize operations (VBSS).
The US is aiming to sign a Logistic Exchange Memorandum Agreement (LEMA) with India which will enable US military vessels to use facilities in Indian ports and vice-versa. The US has already signed a Cross Services Agreement with Sri Lanka which is similar to LEMA.
(The featured image at the top is that of the launch of Izumo the largest Japanese naval vessel)