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Concerns sparked over US Defence Delegation Visit

17 March 2023 08:38 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The recent visit of a 20-member US delegation team comprising high-level defence officials, grabbed the headlines and came under the spotlight due to the classified information about the visit and the government’s failure to articulate the define objective behind the visit. 

The delegation, which included US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Jedidiah Royal, arrived in the country in two special aircraft of the United States Air Force on February 14, 2023. Jedidiah P. Royal, a career member of the Senior Executive Service, is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs. He oversees IPSA’s extensive portfolio – spanning China, Taiwan and Mongolia; East Asia; South and South East Asia; and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia – and works across the national security enterprise to synchronize IPSA activities with foreign policy objectives.   

During its stay in the country, the delegation held discussions with the State Minister of Defence, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne and other key officials. Further, the delegation arrived in Sri Lanka on the heels of the visit by the United States Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. 

In this context, concerns were sparked following these two visits of Nuland's and the US delegation alleging that they were here to discuss US military establishments. There was also speculation that the US, along with India, was planning a military base in Trincomalee. As such, a lot of individuals and parties raised concerns insisting the government to spell out the reason behind the visit. 

However, the purpose of these visits continues to be secret and baffling as no official statement has been made so far regarding the essence of what was discussed.   
Who did they meet?

According to Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry, the delegation paid a courtesy call on the State Minister of Defence Premitha Bandara Tennakoon and Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne during two separate occasions on February 16, where the discussions were centred on matters of further strengthening the existing ties between the U.S. and Sri Lanka. 

“U.S. PDASD accompanied by Defence Attaché of the US embassy Lt. Col. Anthony Nelson on arrival at the State Ministry of Defence in Colombo was accorded a warm welcome by the State Minister of Defence,” the Ministry said in statement.
 “Assistant Defence Attaché in the U.S. Embassy Mr. Seth Nevins, U.S. South Asia Desk Officer Lt. Col. Christian Mitchell and Sri Lankan Defence Ministry’s Senior Assistant Secretary (Defence) Mr. Harsha Withanarachchi were also present during the meeting. The U.S. delegation also arrived at the Defence Headquarters Complex in Sri Jayewardenepura, Kotte and met Secretary of the Ministry of Defence Gen. Kamal Gunaratne,” statement stated.
“Following a warm reception, the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary held a cordial discussion with Mr. Jedidiah P Royal and the mutually supportive relations existed between the two countries were recalled. Further, during the exchange of views, the two high officials also discussed the matters of defence cooperation enhancement and regional security stability. Military Liaison Officer (MLO) of the Ministry of Defence Maj. Gen. Dinesh Nanayakkara, Assistant Defence Attaché in the U.S. Embassy Mr. Seth Nevins and U.S. South Asia Desk Officer Lt. Col. Christian Mitchell were also present at the occasion,” it added.

Moreover, the delegation reportedly met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe albeit there is no an official statement from the President’s Media Division.

What did they discuss? 

Some political analysts are of the opinion that the visit of the 20-member US defence delegation could serve two purposes; one is that Sri Lanka plays a significant part in their plan to establish dominance in the Indo-Pacific region vis-à-vis the rivalry against China and the second purpose is that it is an attempt by Ambassador Chung to show her critics that she is capable of bringing here a high profile defence delegation, in an attempt to repair her somewhat blemished image, in the eyes of both the political establishment as well as the public.

At the same time, the visit also comes following the US shooting down several aerial objects over North America a couple of weeks ago, claiming them to be Chinese surveillance balloons, which fuelled a media frenzy in the US and intensified political pressure on the White House, which also led to concerns about the global fallout from the worsening US-China diplomatic deadlock.
However, China denied accusations of surveillance and claimed that what was shot down was a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes that had been blown off-course.

Yet, the Asian region has been apprehensive about a possible escalation of hostilities between two of the world’s largest economies, and fear a Ukraine-like situation might arise soon in the heart of Asia. Tensions between the two countries almost flared up in August last year when former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, a sore topic for China.

In this context, State Minister of Defence Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon ruled out speculation that US delegation was here to discuss a US military base in Trincomalee. He said  
According to Tennakoon, the delegation discussed further tightening of defence ties with the US, Indo-Pacific security, regional stability and the impact of Russia-Ukraine war. “The US provides training opportunities for 150 Sri Lankan defence officers. It recently donated two ships to the Sri Lanka Navy,” Tennakoon said. 
“This is a normal meeting. We entertain such visits by foreign dignitaries from time to time,” he added. However, he failed to specify the matters discussed. 
Nonetheless, the opposition had urged the government on multiple occasions to make a clear-cut statement on the purpose behind the delegation’s visit; however, the government is yet to break the silence. 

Head of CIA on the trip?

The Opposition of Parliament of Sri Lanka alleged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns was also among the US delegation.
Leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF) MP Wimal Weerawansa, while charging that plans are underway to place all intelligence information collected by Sri Lankan intelligence services under an official of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States, demanded a clarification to the House from either the President or Prime Minister on the recent controversial visit of a 20-member US Pentagon delegation.
“We heard that the US delegation visited the SIS office. Plans are underway to bring the SIS information handling and decision-making under CIA officials. The same operation was initiated in 2001 and suspended in 2004,” Weerawansa pointed out.

Weerawansa said the government should reveal what had been discussed and the decisions made during the US delegation’s visit. He claimed that they had met the President, Defence Secretary and heads of intelligence services.

Weerawansa asked Foreign Minister, Ali Sabry to reveal the House the purpose of the US delegation’s visit and meetings with local authorities. In response, Minister Ali Sabry said the Foreign Ministry was unaware of the visit and that it had been handled by the Defence Ministry.

Meanwhile, Opposition Parliamentarian and Attorney Udaya Udaya Gammanpila also alleged that CIA Director William Burns was part of the delegation. 

“For over three weeks we have been questioning as to who visited the island, but the government and the US have maintained their silence,” he said. 

Four proposals compromising the national security of Sri Lanka during this meeting, Gammanpila stressed. 

“The first proposal discussed during the meeting is the setting up of an Intelligence Analysis Centre for the purpose of intelligence sharing with the US. This proposal first came in 2002 when the current President was Prime Minister. The then government attempted to implement this project amidst strongest objections from the local intelligence community,” he said. 

“The second proposal is the gifting of a biometric immigration control system to Sri Lanka, for which US will retain access to, Gammanpila alleged, warning that such a move will discourage Chinese and Indian investors from doing business in Sri Lanka. 

The third proposal includes access to submarine telecommunications cables and data, for which the US is willing to provide prior intel on terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. This is the biggest joke of the year,”. The final proposal was the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two countries, Gammanpila said. 

“Except for the final proposal, it appears that the President has not agreed to the other proposals. If our national security is compromised in this manner, Sri Lanka will soon follow the fate of Panama,” he said.

Meanwhile, responding to these claims, Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga announced that the government would inform the parliament of the purpose of the visit later. However, no official statement has been made so far pertaining to the visit.

At the same time, MP Gammanpila has said that he would to file a right to information (RTI) request with the Department of Immigration and Emigration seeking details on recent visits by high-ranking US officials, including whether their Intelligence personnel too were part of these delegations.

Sri Lanka’s strategic location and the recent visit

It is evident and apparent that the US is building its military strength in the Indo-Pacific Region with US Indo-Pacific Command regularly highlighting the importance of using Sri Lanka’s strategic location. US is also a member of the Quad group of countries which include India, Japan and Australia as other members. For both, the US and India, one of the thorns in their eyes for the past couple of decades has been Sri Lanka’s close collaboration with China.

In spite of strong opposition from India, Sri Lanka has been relatively lenient in obtaining development loans from China and permitting a variety of Chinese ships and submarines to dock in Sri Lanka's ports. Besides, in recent weeks, the US and Chinese missions in Colombo have openly traded barbs in an undiplomatic manner under the guise of debt restructuring and an IMF fund facility on behalf of Sri Lanka.

Against this backdrop, Sri Lanka in 2017 signed 83-page military agreement called Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement (ACSA) with the US, which still remains a secret document.

Sri Lanka by signing will allow US military access to Sri Lanka’s entry and exit points – Airports and Ports for logistics, support, supplies and services - food, water, billeting, transportation, air, petroleum, clothing, communication services, medical services, base operations support, use of local facilities, training, spare parts, repair, maintenance, port services – all of these activities will be done by US personnel on Sri Lanka’s facilities. 

The 2017 ACSA was a renewal of the 2007 agreement signed by then Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa with U.S. ambassador Robert Blake on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka’s Defense Ministry and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

Meanwhile, in March 2002, a delegation of US officials, led by then Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca and including US Brigadier General Timothy Ghormely, commander of the US Marine Expeditionary Brigade, visited Sri Lanka for talks with then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Defense Minister Tilak Marapana, and senior army officers at the Palaly army camp in the north. The following month, a four-member US military and legal team visited Sri Lanka.

In this context, the recent visit will raise speculation that there will be deeper military cooperation between US and Sri Lanka giving more emphasis on ACSA.

The Indian Factor

It is apparent that India is closely monitoring the US defence team in Colombo in the context of how it will impact Indian security concerns and whether the US delegation study the Chinese spying on Sri Lanka more than China does on India.

Observers believe that India is unaware that the Sinhalese will support anyone but India. They will gladly support America in order to keep India out. Previously, China provided them with that guarantee. India does understand the Sinhalese mindset, but will India yield to the tactics of a tiny island nation Sri Lanka?

In conclusion, as Sri Lanka is at crossroads, the priority should be given to restore the economy. The rulers should be also be mindful of the fact that since Sri Lanka is on the mend, the controversial incidents of this nature can hamper the smooth-running of the country resulting in more chaos. Further, it should be noted that Sri Lanka should be cautious of India or the US wanting to set up military bases in Trincomalee or elsewhere to make Sri Lanka an important supply area in the Indian Ocean. Also, the Governments should not agree to additional conditions or sell sovereignty when solving the economic problems. At the same time, Sri Lanka should pursue a policy of neutrality or nonalignment in international affairs and avoid big-power politics especially when dealing with giant countries like US and India. 

  Comments - 1

  • Other small nation same mindset Saturday, 18 March 2023 09:35 PM

    The author uses words like 'Sinhalese mindset' rather than the the particular mindset being what any small population nation with a neighbor which gigantically powerful would do. Our mindset is to preserve our identity, which is what the majority of any small nation would do.

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