Given that no country can abandon Sri Lanka due to its geostrategic positioning, it is up to lawmakers like president Maithripala Sirisena (Third from left) himself to balance its relations with the rest of the world
Given its strategic position in the Indian Ocean astride major trade arteries, Sri Lanka has become a place being wooed by the world powers in pursuit of their security and commercial interests in an integrated global system.
So to speak, the United States (U.S) keeps engaging Sri Lanka for signing the Status of Forces Agreement which is commonly called SOFA or the Visiting Forces Agreement. The U.S. does so as the country with the largest economy and military power in the world. Alongside, China which is the world’s second largest economy with a robust growth rate coupled with an ever-increasing military prowess, reaches out to Sri Lanka for defence cooperation. Sri Lanka is caught in the superpower struggle to keep the region favourable to the interests of each stakeholder.
The U.S. proposes to improve on the SOFA originally signed in 1995 against such a backdrop only. The 1995 agreement applies to the status of U.S. military personnel and civilian employees of the Department of Defence (DOD) who visit Sri Lanka for exercises or other official duties.
The 1995 agreement provides immunities and privileges stipulated under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to US military personnel and DoD civilian employees visiting Sri Lanka.
In the current context, it is the U.S. that proposed to update this Agreement to account for what it termed ‘current best practice’ and to reflect ‘the nature of the growing US-Sri Lanka bilateral defence relationship.
As of now, the government appears to have succumbed to pressure from critics. Accordingly, President Maithripala Sirisena fired the first salvo when he said that he would not allow the signing of any agreement detrimental to the interests of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty
According to highly placed sources, the Government, or the proponents of the SOFA within the Government held the view that further recognition of the provisions of the existing agreement is needed. Alongside, the Government took up the position that the current administrative arrangements of the SOFA should be revisited in keeping with the increased pace of bilateral visits and exercises between the U.S. and Sri Lanka.
The proposed administrative arrangements include provisions such as mutual recognition of professional licences, how US military personnel and DoD civilians may enter and exit Sri Lanka, fees for support services rendered, and regulations for hiring foreign and local contractors.
All hell broke loose in society after the revelation of the contents of the agreement. After the revelation, the public opinion militated against the move to sign this agreement as an improvement to the already existing SOFA.
As of now, the government appears to have succumbed to pressure from critics. Accordingly, President Maithripala Sirisena fired the first salvo when he said that he would not allow the signing of any agreement detrimental to the interests of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
Afterwards, it is learnt from reliable sources that Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana proposed certain amendments to the proposed agreement when he was in Washington recently for talks with the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
According to sources, Mangala Samaraweera, who was the then Foreign Affairs Minister, had negotiated and given his assent to some of the provisions in the agreement, which have now evoked criticism from different quarters.
Samaraweera also cosponsored the U.S. sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2015 in a similar fashion, and later, his decision was impugned by many including the President.
Advocates of the SOFA say it is of administrative, and sets the rules of how the U.S. conducts joint exercises with Sri Lanka.
They argue that joint exercises strengthen Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and provide the Sri Lanka military access to train with what they call best in the world and allow the Sri Lankan military access to the best and most advanced forms of equipment as well. They say it provides equipment for Sri Lanka’s use. They cited the US recently transferring a cutter or a commissioned vessel to be used in the Sri Lanka Naval Fleet.
Host of critics against SOFA
However, there is a host of critics who view the SOFA as a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, on the contrary to what its proponents say.
According to them, the extended version of SOFA offers full enjoyment of diplomatic immunity in Sri Lanka not only to any member of US armed forces, but also to the contractors and employees of US armed forces. As such, they say, the soldiers of US army can be present in Sri Lanka without any restriction in their uniform and arms.
The rise of China, with its growing interests in the region, is the main reason that propelled the western power bloc to make vigorous engagements with the littoral nations of Indian Ocean.
The U.S. is doing it as part of its Indo-pacific strategy. Sri Lanka, as a country, remains vital from a strategic, maritime security perspective for both the U.S and China alike. So, it is understandable as to why they would like to have Sri Lanka within the sphere of their influence.
All hell broke loose in society after the revelation of the contents of the agreement. After the revelation, the public opinion militated against the move to sign this agreement as an improvement to the already existing SOFA
Against the backdrop of the U.S. seeking increased military to military cooperation with Sri Lanka, China also donated a vessel to enhance operational capabilities of Sri Lanka Navy. The ship arrived in Sri Lanka on Monday. Built in 1994, the ship is 112 metres in length and 12.4 metres in width. It boasts of a displacement capacity of 2,300 tonnes.
“A crew of 18 officers and 92 sailors perform duties in the ship. After the ship is included in the SLN fleet, she will be utilised for patrol and surveillance missions in the deep sea surrounding Mother Lanka. The ship will also be used for search and rescue operations to provide security and assistance to naval and fisheries communities,” the Navy said.
China has already become a force to be reckoned with on the global stage. Even in the face of stiff pressure, China has not compromised its core interests meaning that it has the necessary wherewithal to defend itself.
In his speech at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue recently, Chinese Minister of National Defence Gen. Wei Fenghe also stressed about it.
All these developments call for Sri Lankan leadership, policy makers and think tanks to focus on how best Sri Lanka, as a country, could work out its own policy enabling to get the best out of the world – that is by without alienating any country or pitting one country against another. It is warranted more than ever for Sri Lanka to hone its diplomatic tools and skills. No country can abandon Sri Lanka because of its geostrategic positioning. Then, it is up to Sri Lanka to balance its relations with the rest of the world.