The brief Colombo visit of US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland comes against a backdrop of a herculean power struggle between world powers, playing out on the world stage with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nuland, former Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, is seen as a hawk in the US administration and its ‘point person’ on the Ukraine crisis. A former US ambassador to NATO, she is credited with earlier having worked intensively on the alliance’s expansion to include 7 new members. She’s also on record having directed a Council on Foreign Relations task force on “Russia, its Neighbours and an Expanding NATO.” Colombo was her third stop on a tour 19-23 March, starting in Bangladesh, followed by India.
US Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Nuland’s somewhat mild remarks to media in Colombo were in contrast with media events in Dhaka and Delhi, where reports suggest she came out strongly, urging them to align with the Washington and its Western allies in condemning Russia. In Dhaka she invoked a need for “all free nations and all free people to stand together with the people of Ukraine,” according to The Daily Star. In India she told NDTV in an interview that “Democracies need to stand together and evolve their position vis-a-vis Russia ..” and “must stand against autocracies like Russia and China.” Furthermore, she added that this was conveyed to New Delhi.
Remarks in Colombo
In remarks at a joint press briefing with Foreign Minister G L Peiris, following the ‘SL-US partnership dialogue’ in Colombo, Nuland commended the government for moving forward on “issues of national healing and justice,” particularly for passing amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The US was ‘encouraging’ provincial council elections, and the government’s ‘courageous’ step to reach out to the IMF was ‘absolutely crucial.’ The US would be a partner and strengthen the capacity of its embassy ‘to work with you at this vital moment’ she said.
There was a passing reference to ‘Russia’s brutal aggression.’ The tone of speech may have been soothing to the ears of government, but discordant to others, at a time when public anger is spilling onto the streets on account of extreme economic hardships. Rights activists point out that the worst elements of the PTA remain intact even after the amendments.
It’s interesting that Nuland’s praise for ‘moves towards national healing’ were linked to comments on US initiatives in security:
“But overall I want to particularly commend the Foreign Minister and his partnership with the Justice Minister in moving forward on all of these issues of national healing and justice. As you take those steps it will open even more space for our partnership, particularly in the security arena, which is already strong in the maritime domain, in the aviation domain. As you know, we have two US cutters which are now in service in the Sri Lankan Navy and we have another one on the way which is being outfitted now and your sailors and seamen will sail it here in the coming weeks.”
Nuland, former Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, is seen as a hawk in the US administration and its ‘point person’ on the Ukraine crisis
Is the soft-pedaling of human rights and national reconciliation the quid-pro-quo for cooperation with US in its so-called ‘free and open Indo Pacific strategy?’ Or is it because the task of drawing Sri Lanka into Washington’s sphere of influence is being effectively carried out by a proxy closer home? In the Maldives it’s evident this project is already well underway. The Maldives signed a defence agreement with the US in 2020, and with India in 2021.
A dire foreign exchange crisis recently drove Sri Lanka to seek financial support from India. Assistance to the tune of $2.4 billion was pledged, that included a loan for food, medicine and fuel. During this period an agreement, long awaited by India, on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm was finalized. Multiple reports – not contradicted by government - say Colombo signed other defence-related deals, that would serve India’s maritime security interests.
According to the Hindustan Times of 22.03.22, “In addition to agreements for the purchase of two Dornier aircraft and the acquisition of a 4,000-tonne naval floating dock by Sri Lanka, Colombo has agreed to post a naval liaison officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in Gurugram…” The floating dock is described as “a facility equipped with automated systems for the quality and swift repairs of warships. Such docks have the capability to lift large ships such as frigates and destroyers, and are designed to be berthed alongside a jetty or moored in calm waters to carry out planned or emergency repairs of ships.” Such a facility couldn’t possibly have been on Sri Lanka’s shopping list - raising concerns as to whose warships will be serviced in Trincomalee. In what kind of conflict (or other) scenario would this happen?
Meanwhile the cabinet has approved a $6 million Indian-funded ‘Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre’ which, The Sunday Times says, will be located at the Naval Headquarters in Colombo. It is also reported that the US will supply two Beechcraft 360ER maritime surveillance aircraft to the Sri Lanka Air Force, free of charge. “The aircraft will be handed over to the US Army, which will install sensors” before delivery to SLA, according to The Defense Post. It does not require deep insight to see that these ‘gifts’ will serve the interests of the givers,
not the recipients.
Over the past several years the US, helped by its allies, has been building a maritime security architecture in the Indian Ocean region to achieve its strategic goals. In the face of shifting tides in the global balance of power, the superpower fights to maintain hegemony, while seeking to neutralize perceived adversaries. In this great game, Sri Lanka is seen as a valuable asset on account of its strategic location.
The US and India have now secured footholds in Sri Lanka in the vital economic sectors of energy and ports - where China already has significant investments . Some of these agreements were reached through unsolicited proposals, and allegedly without due process. There is public discontent over multiple strategic assets being in the hands of external powers, posing a potential threat to sovereignty.
Against this background, a question that arises when a top US official makes a low-profile visit, is whether any defence related agreement with the US was sought, or agreed upon. In Bangladesh, asked about the signing of any defence deal, “she said they handed a draft agreement - GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) – to the Bangladesh side,” said The Daily Star. “We are very confident that we will be able to get this issue settled and that’s what we look forward to,” she is reported as saying. The media briefing in Colombo however was held on the basis that no questions were taken – for reasons unknown.