A top US commander has advocated sustained American engagement with Sri Lanka despite the political and ethnic turmoil in the island nation posing a challenge to bilateral ties, amid increasing Chinese influence in the strategically important Indo-Pacific region.
US Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm Philip Davidson told the Senate’s Armed Services Committee during a Congressional hearing that US’ military-to-military relationship continues to grow with Sri Lanka.
“Sri Lanka remains a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian Ocean, and our military-to-military relationship continues to strengthen. The political turmoil and ethnic tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations, however, remain drivers of instability and potential obstacles to continued growth in our partnership,” Davidson said.
Sri Lanka has handed over the deep water port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease due to its mounting debts to China, which has caused international concern, he said.
Despite the political upheaval, it is in America’s interests to continue military collaboration and cooperation with Sri Lankan Forces, he added.
The United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) cooperation with the Sri Lankan military centers on building capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as humanitarian de-mining, medical assistance, and peacekeeping operations, he said.
Increasing navy-to-navy engagement with Sri Lanka will be a USINDOPACOM focus in 2019, he added.
Davidson said the Sri Lankan Navy is a well-trained and professional force with the potential to contribute to multi-lateral maritime interoperability in the Indian Ocean.
The recent transfer of an excess US Coast Guard cutter to Sri Lanka in August 2018, along with additional platforms from Japan and India, provide the Sri Lankan Navy greater capabilities to contribute to regional maritime domain awareness initiatives, he said.
“Going forward, it is necessary to sustain engagement with Sri Lanka, particularly the navy, and construct a multi-lateral approach to capacity building with like-minded partners to rapidly enhance the Sri Lankan Navy’s capabilities,” Davidson said.
According to the top Pentagon Commander, Beijing is exploiting growing debt burdens to access strategic infrastructure in the region.
In December 2017, Sri Lanka handed over control of the newly-built Hambantota seaport to Beijing on lease because it could no longer afford its debt payments to China, he added.