By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, February 20: The Eastern Sri Lankan Port of Trincomalee, one of the best natural harbors in the world, has always attracted the interest of global and regional economic and military powers. Hence, any visit of a high-level political or military delegation of foreign powers comes under the scrutiny of the media and most of the time there are sensational reports based on speculation. There are either inaccurate or highly exaggerated reports.
Three recent visits by foreign delegates also resulted in such speculation. First, it was the Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, followed by Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs of the United States and then last week’s visit of US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (PDASD) for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Jedidiah P. Royal.
During Jaishankar’s visit, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed for the implementation of High Impact Community Development projects, focusing on socio-economic development, infrastructure, health and education in Sri Lanka. Addressing the media, he said that both sides have agreed in principle on renewable energy cooperation, as Trincomalee can emerge as an energy hub. Sri Lanka plans to set up an economic zone in Trincomalee. Jaishankar said that New Delhi would encourage more significant investments in the Sri Lankan economy, especially in the core areas like energy, tourism and infrastructure.
“We count on the Government of Sri Lanka to provide a more business-friendly environment to create a powerful pull factor. I am confident that the gravity of the situation is realiszd by policymakers here,” the Indian Minister said.
Sri Lanka and India agreed to develop 99 oil storage tanks in Trincomalee under a joint venture during the visit of Jaishankar. In accordance with the Indo -Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) signed by Rajiv Gandhi and J. R. Jayewardene in 1987, a further agreement was signed in 2003 to upgrade and commission the 99 tanks in the oil farm – each with a capacity of 12,250 kilolitres – on a 35-year lease.
After conclusion of the visit of American Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, there were speculative media reports that she discussed setting up an American military base in Trincomalee. The report also stated that prior to her visit, she met key officials in the Indian Government, including Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar, to discuss a strategic plan for the region.
The media report, quoting ‘informed sources’, added that during her visit, Nuland had suggested to the Sri Lankan Government in the ‘strongest possible terms’ to establish a US-Indian joint military base in Trincomalee, which will serve as a critical component in protecting US and Asia-Pacific interests and countering Chinese development activities in the region. It also quoted a ‘diplomat’ adding that the establishment of a military base is expected to enhance security and stability in the region, and promote greater cooperation between the United States, India, and Sri Lanka.
The visit of Nuland was followed by the last week’s visit of a 20-member US delegation headed by US PDASD, Jedidiah P. Royal. American Ambassador Julie Chung welcoming him to Sri Lanka tweeted that she and Jed Royal had discussed how the US is working with Sri Lanka on shared goals such as promoting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and maritime security, enhancing regional stability, and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, however, ruled out speculation that he was here to discuss a US military base in Trincomalee. After discussions with him, State Minister of Defense Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon said he discussed further tightening of defense ties between the two countries, Indo -Pacific security and regional stability. The US provides training opportunities for 150 Sri Lankan defense officers. It recently donated two ships to the Sri Lanka Navy.
Although Sri Lanka has not entered into any military pacts with any nation to put up military bases, the country has agreements with many countries on military cooporation. Colombo has inked the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) with the US, allowing it to acquire defense logistic support in Sri Lanka.
The letters exchanged by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene, after the signing of ISLA, referred to the Trincomalee oil tanks and an understanding that Sri Lanka would not lease them to any country without prior consultations with India.
Sri Lanka’s interest is to maintain maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, because of its importance to the economy of the country. It has no military ambitions and is determined not to get involved in regional or global power blocs. Since ancient times, ports in Sri Lanka were popular with commercial vessels from overseas and the country continued to provide facilities to vessels from all corners of the world. Even today, vessels of many countries call at Sri Lankan ports and occasionally there are naval vessels too, calling for replenishments, joint military exercises or for friendly calls. During all these, Sri Lanka strictly maintains the condition that such visits should not be directed against the interests of a third country as Sri Lanka strictly adhere to its policy of neutrality.
Sri Lanka has no intention whatsoever to get involved in a tussle between regional or international powers. As Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena clarified in the Independence Day message earlier this month, “We must also keep in mind, the challenges that have arisen nationally and internationally against the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of this country. We are determined to make Sri Lanka a prosperous country, maintaining friendly relations with the nations of the world.”