File Photo: Aircraft carrier in waters off Okinawa, alongside a refuelling ship. Reuters
We hear these days much about the competition for military dominance in the Indian Ocean region, where Sri Lanka has emerged strategically the most important location -- with military analysts describing it as a potential permanent aircraft carrier.
Against the backdrop of big power manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean region, a controversy is raging in Sri Lanka over military tie-ups with the United States, the world’s number one power, which is seen to be increasingly insecure in view of China’s growing economic and military strength. Washington’s moves indicate it is falling into a Thucydides trap. Greek historian Thucydides postulated that war became inevitable when the then reining power Sparta, driven by the fear of being overtaken, reacted to the rise of Athens. Historians say the in the past 500 years, on 12 of the 16 occasions when a similar situation arose, war was the outcome.
While the US seems to recognise that a war with China is sheer madness, given the nuclear arsenal the two countries possess, it is taking every other means to check China’s rise. Washington will not abdicate the crown without giving a tough fight short of an all-out war. The ongoing trade war with China and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with China’s neighbours were part of this US strategy. It also includes Washington’s desperate attempt to convert North Korea from a China ally into a neutral country. Strengthening military ties with nations such as India and securing bases and strategic ports through agreements are a vital component of this strategy.
Nowhere does the strategy become more imperative than in the Indian Ocean region, which has been brought under the US Indo-Pacific Command, amid China’s growing visibility in the region.
In 2016, the United States and India signed a military logistics agreement, governing the use of each other’s land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply, in a move to counter the growing maritime assertiveness of China. In 2013, the Maldivian government came under pressure to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. In 2014, the then President Abdulla Yameen, seen to be pro-China, declared that his country would not sign any SOFA with the US.
As the US rushes for SOFA-like deals, China is increasing its military presence in the Indian Ocean region, not so much as a means to confront the US, but as a move to provide security for its workers and multibillion dollar investments spread all over the region under the highly ambitious Belt-and-Road project. In 2008, China had only a semi naval presence in the Indian Ocean, but today, it has established a major military base in Djibouti and secured strategic commercial sea ports – which, according to critics, are being built as military-cum-commercial ports -- in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
In this scramble for bases, the US position appears to be in line with the Neoconservative agenda that advocates United States’ global domination through military means. President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton was among those who endorsed a white paper prepared by the now defunct neocon think tank PNAC -- the Plan for New American Century (PNAC).
"As the US rushes for SOFA-like deals, China is increasing its military presence in the Indian Ocean region, not so much as a means to confront the US, but as a move to provide security for its workers and multibillion dollar investments spread all over the region under the highly ambitious Belt-and-Road project"
Going by Washington’s military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, it appears that Washington’s strategy for global military dominance is set in motion against the backdrop of what can be termed ‘disaster militarism’ which operates in tandem with what Canadian socialist Journalist Naomi Klien calls ‘disaster capitalism’. In her book ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’, she argues that today’s preferred method of reshaping the world in the interest of multinational corporations is to systematically exploit the state of fear and disorientation that accompanies moments of great shock and crisis such as the war in Iraq.
After George Bush’s Shock and Awe operations destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and led to the US occupation of Iraq, American energy and construction companies trooped into the war-ravaged nation to gobble up contracts which were to be paid by the plunder of Iraq’s resources. Besides Disaster capitalism, Iraq was also a victim of disaster militarism, which simply means a powerful country securing a permanent or time-specific military presence in a target country, by taking advantage of a crisis situation.
Iraqi leaders were browbeaten by the US occupation force to obtain parliamentary approval for the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Strategic Framework Agreement.
In Afghanistan, the then President Hamid Karzai resisted the signing of the SOFA, as he suspected the US motives, though a year later his successor Ashraf Ghani signed the SOFA and several other defence agreements with the US and Nato.
Another trouble spot where disaster militarism was seen at play was Western Africa. While Mali was plunged into a civil war in 2013, the US supported the French troops who moved in to protect its interests in its former colony. The same year, making use of the Mali crisis and the threat from Islamic militants, the US signed a SOFA with neighbouring Niger, allowing the US forces to legally operate on its soil. In Africa, where China’s influence is growing, the US, using wars and Islamic terrorism as an excuse, has also struck deals with Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Djibouti and a several other nations to gain a military foothold.
The question now arises as to whether the US move to force a SOFA on Sri Lanka is part of disaster militarism – or an attempt to take advantage of the security threats in the wake of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks.
"While the US seems to recognise that a war with China is sheer madness, given the nuclear arsenal the two countries possess, it is taking every other means to check China’s rise"
In Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe denied the government had signed a SOFA with the US. He noted that a 1995 agreement governed the US military presence in Sri Lanka and in 2017 the government had signed an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) when the previous ACSA signed in 2007 lapsed.
Though he said he also had objections to certain provisions in the proposed SOFA, he did not give an assurance that the government would not sign it. This assurance was given by President Maithripala Sirisena. But the President is not revealing to the country the contents of a similar controversial defence agreement he signed with China in May when he was invited to Beijing for a one-on-one with President Xi Jinping.
This country should find refuge in non-alignment and stay clear of big power politics. Striking a foreign policy balance does not mean giving Hambantota to China, Trincomalee to the US and some other port to India. Djibouti makes money this way. The US, China, France, Italy, Japan and Saudi Arabia have bases there.
But Sri Lanka need not go the Djibouti way to achieve growth. We are a capable nation. The reason why we are not progressing is corruption and political instability arising largely from our failure to do away with racial politics and rise as one nation.