Indian Ocean, Global Interests: The 'Great Game' In Sri Lanka

Major (Retd.) Madhan Kumar

Mar 25, 2023, 12:19 AM | Updated 12:19 AM IST

President of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe and President of China  Xi Jinping. (Representational image).
President of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe and President of China Xi Jinping. (Representational image).
  • It is important for India to enhance its monitoring, control, surveillance, and enforcement mechanisms with its neighbouring countries.
  • Two of American Air Force's ’C-17 Globe Masters’ landed at Katunayake Airport on 18 February, 2023.

    Reports from the Katunayake International Airport said that these two special US Air Force planes reached Sri Lanka from a US military base in Greece.

    Even so, the details of the arrival of these planes have not yet been fully disclosed by Colombo.

    The C-17 is known for its rapid strategic delivery of troops and cargo from the deployment area. Although, only 29 members alighted from the plane at the KIA airport, including higher Defence officials of the United States of America.

    The two US Air Force planes left the next day.

    Who visited the Island and Why?

    The American delegation that came to Sri Lanka on the two Globe Master planes included US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Jedidiah R. Royal.

    Just a few days back, 14 February, 2023, William Burns, head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, made a secret visit to the country last month.

    This visit raised many controversial questions because Burns was scheduled to fly to Nepal from Sri Lanka on 15 February for an 18-hours stay but he was barred from visiting the country. 

    Four proposals on Sri Lanka’s security:

    These arrivals may be related to important agreements such as SOFA, ACSA, and MCC. Under these, the possible topic of discussions could have been:

    1. The setting up of an Intelligence Analysis Center.

    2. The donation of a biometric immigration control system.

    3. The granting of access to submarine telecommunications cables and data, and the review of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

    SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement):

    The agreement aims to establish the legal status of foreign military personnel and their activities in the host country.

    This covers legal jurisdiction over military personnel, the status of military facilities and equipment, the rights and privileges of the military personnel and their families, and the procedures for resolving disputes between the two countries.

    SOFA firing Sri Lanka:

    Before the current SOFA discussions, the US-Sri Lanka followed the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA), signed first in 2007 and renewed in 2017.

    The Lankan government has not yet signed a new (SOFA) agreement, but still has been discussing a new draft that has more add-ons than the previous one, which would give the US forces unrestricted access to Sri Lankan facilities as well as diplomatic immunity.


    The ACSA provides for joint military cooperation between Sri Lanka and the United States. This includes logistic support, supplies, services, and the use of airports and ports during “unforeseen circumstances”. 

    While the 2007 ACSA permits US military vessels to anchor in Sri Lanka ports on a ‘one-off’ basis, the 2017 ACSA appears to be “open-ended”.

    Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC):

    The MCC is a bilateral United States foreign aid agency that has pledged to continue working with Sri Lanka to advance the proposed $480 million compact.

    Global interest in Sri Lanka, why so?

    The Trincomalee and Hambantota ports of Sri Lanka have strategic significance, not just limited to economic and energy supplies.

    Today, Sri Lanka is of strategic interest to several countries, including India, Japan, China, and the US.

    Indo-Pacific region Setting its Priorities now:

    The Indo-Pacific has now emerged as one of the pivotal theatres of interstate contestation and competition among great power countries like China, the USA, and Japan.

    China's Maritime expansion in Sri Lanka has threatened the USA and made it come back into the Indo-Pacific construct to counter its adversaries. All these strategic dynamics and US defence agreements are to keep Chinese aggressions at bay. Sri Lanka, in particular, is an aid recipient of both the United States and China.

    India’s approach to gain in Indo-Pacific and assuring its internal security:

    Debt-trapped Sri Lanka’s handing over of Hambantota port to the Chinese on lease has already raised concerns for India.

    India's approach to its neighbourhood is focused and should be on balancing China and the US through alternative multilateral collaborations.

    It is important for India to enhance its monitoring, control, surveillance, and enforcement mechanisms with its neighbouring countries through increased regional cooperation and collaboration.

    India's vision is not directed against any country, but it is important for India to keep a close eye on developments in its neighbourhood and take appropriate measures to safeguard its interests. By focusing on regional collaboration and cooperation, India can effectively manage its security threats and maintain its position in the region.

    The author is an analyst of geopolitical affairs.

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