Sri Lanka is Not China’s Pearl in the Indian Ocean


Why were Sri Lankan schoolchildren dancing to a U.S. Navy band? Sri Lanka has just finished welcoming a U.S. military operation that seeks to build relationships in the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, this long-running engagement mission in the Asia-Pacific, known as Pacific Partnership, made its first-ever visit to South Asia with this deployment. Through Pacific Partnership, U.S. armed forces and civilian personnel provide medical, dental and engineering assistance to local communities as well as exchange lessons learned while responding to natural disasters.

What is particularly notable is the location of Pacific Partnership within Sri Lanka — Hambantota. This southern district along the main east-west sea lanes in the Indian Ocean is home to a port project that has been scrutinized over the last decade for supposedly being a part of China’s “string of pearls,” or nodes of influence in the Indian Ocean. The country’s increasing commercial and military presence so far from home has raised concerns about its intentions in the region. This concern extends to Sri Lanka. Many observers have written off Sri Lanka as a debt-laden country, beholden to a rising China promising infrastructure in exchange for strategic sway under its Maritime Silk Road initiative. As a result, this significant showing by the United States, plus teams from Australia and Japan, may come as a surprise.

So what, if anything, does this development mean? China and its state-owned enterprises offer commercial infrastructure opportunities that few counterparts can compete with. The case of a bustling terminal in Colombo port is a clear example. Yet, Sri Lanka continues to display openness to countries beyond China, such as India, the United States and Japan. How can we explain Sri Lanka’s behavior diverging from what observers expect? A look at the past year of U.S. military engagement with Sri Lanka reveals an important lesson. When faced with China’s commercial strengths — especially in the maritime realm — policymakers should not forget their own strengths when interacting with the smaller countries of South Asia. These include the military, diplomatic and cultural realms.  Such engagement helps smaller South Asian states bolster their autonomy and gives them more strategic options than the ominous one offered by China.

In Just One Year

Since the election of a new administration in Sri Lanka in 2015, questions over Sri Lanka’s strategic direction and China’s role in it have dominated regional media commentary. In particular, heated debate continues over Chinese development of the port in Hambantota and surrounding region. Meanwhile, the United States has conducted extraordinary defense engagement and training with Sri Lanka in the last year. This marks a striking shift from Washington’s virtual suspension of bilateral security cooperation during the authoritarian rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was defeated in the 2015 polls.

Following the inaugural U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue meeting in Washington, Colombo welcomed in March 2016 the first U.S. naval ship to the island nation since 2011. Other U.S. ship visits to Colombo have since taken place. In August 2016, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) conducted humanitarian assistance and engineering work in the northern part of the country through Operation Pacific Angel in Jaffna. In November, the United States expanded its interaction with Sri Lanka to the eastern city of Trincomalee, also home to the Sri Lanka Navy’s largest base, with the visit of the ship USS Somerset. That same month, the four-star PACOM Commander, Admiral Harry Harris, delivered the keynote address at the Galle Dialogue maritime security conference in Colombo, which was the most senior representation by a U.S. official at the annual event.

In December 2016, Sri Lanka permitted U.S. military interactions in another corner of its country when a U.S. maritime patrol aircraft arrived at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in the Hambantota district. As with Hambantota port, China’s role in financing and constructing the airport in nearby Mattala has been greatly politicized, including by the current leadership in Colombo when they were in the opposition (It is worth noting that an American multinational company had a role in designing the airport as well). The U.S. military’s Pacific Partnership visit to Hambantota continues this pattern of engagement.

The Road Ahead

How Sri Lanka will build up the Hambantota port region remains controversial. At present, officials are trying to renegotiate a framework deal that was contested in the country’s Supreme Court. While it appears that a Hong Kong-based company will be involved, it is not yet clear what the final terms will be regarding finances and operations. At a minimum, the Chinese ambassador acknowledges that “the port belongs to Sri Lanka.” Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Navy will continue moving its base from Galle to Hambantota.

Regardless of these contested commercial dealings, Sri Lanka appears to be signaling through recent activities with the U.S. military and long-standing defense interactions with India that it will continue to remain open to strategic relations with various countries. Sri Lanka has historically resisted being relegated to one camp of competing major powers. In fact, echoes of Colombo’s 1971 U.N. proposal for an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace that sought to minimize great power rivalry in the region can be heard today in Sri Lankan calls for a Code of Conduct in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka’s signaling illustrates a lesson for the study of the smaller states of South Asia. The idea that smaller South Asian countries can “choose” to align with China over India (or the United States or Japan) assumes a level of economic, diplomatic and military resources that they do not possess. Given their size and prioritization of national development goals, these countries cannot afford to withstand such a singular course. While committed to maintaining their sovereignty, smaller South Asian countries also understand that they are within India’s wider economic and diplomatic orbit — as well as military reach — and do not seek to counter the dominant power in their region.

To be sure, neither India nor the United States has yet shown a willingness and/or ability to compete with the scale of China’s infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, a clear transshipment hub along the busy Indian Ocean sea lanes. Policymakers in Washington as well as New Delhi thus would be wise to utilize their other economic, diplomatic, military and cultural strengths and continue to engage Sri Lanka not only to advance their own strategic interests in the region but to bolster the agency of smaller South Asian countries in international affairs.


Nilanthi Samaranayake is a strategic studies analyst at CNA, a non-profit research organization in Arlington, VA. Samaranayake has published several articles focusing on the smaller countries of South Asia, including their relations with China (Praeger). The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.

Image: U.S. Navy

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