Sri Lanka’s Strategic Importance to the U.S.
By Dr Srimal Fernando
U.S. diplomacy with the Indian subcontinent and its neighbouring states has substantially changed over the last seven decades. The developing Indo-U.S. partnership in the Indo-Pacific region further validates India’s and Sri Lanka’s significance in the South Asian sphere.
The U.S.’s nature of engagement with the nations in South Asia has diversified with time with the national interest of the U.S. going through diverse stages of progression. The foreign policy outlook of the U.S. with the South Asian nations consists of increased leadership and management along with establishing the region’s free market economy and the rule of law. Sri Lanka is considered by the U.S. to be a significant partner in the Indo-Pacific region and the gateway to the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka being an island nation and its proximity to India are key features that provide the country with the strategic importance that is needed to maintain its political and economic interdependence. Since 1956, Washington has shed light on the special importance of Sri Lanka. This has subsequently resulted in the emergence of a new line of thinking on U.S. - Sri Lanka ties in foreign policy circles.
The increasing interdependency of India and the U.S. spanning several fronts is based on mutual strategic interests. In the past, Sri Lanka may have been considered to be a small and dispensable island nation, but on the contrary is seen today as a strategic maritime asset.
Tripartite relations: U.S.-India-Sri Lanka
India having a foreign and defense policy which is intact with its Southern neighbours needs to get these neighbouring states on its side to build an environment of combined security and to enhance connectivity of the exclusive economic zone between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to approximately 3.7 million sq.km. Hence, protecting the territorial integrity of these small island nations should be of key significance to India. For geopolitical and strategic reasons both India and Sri Lanka consider each other to be mutually significant.
South Asia’s largest state, India which is a close ally of the U.S., is already pursuing stronger links with its Southern neighbor, Sri Lanka, through its “Neighborhood First” foreign policy doctrine. The projected economic growth of India in the coming years will automatically have a spillover effect on Sri Lanka, providing additional prospects for the U.S. to engage in this region. Some of the beneficial tools that the U.S. can utilize to gain access to the consumer markets in South Asia are the trade instruments such as the South Asian Free Trade Area and the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade agreements.
Likewise, being a superpower in the region and gradually progressing towards being a global super power, India needs to transform its foreign and defense policies to a higher level pertaining to a responsible conduct towards its neighbouring states to bring about economic, political and military stability in this region. This adaptation necessitates a joint approach not only from the big nations but also from small island states like Sri Lanka. Therefore, focusing on the maritime defense policy will be a vital element to protect the territorial integrity of these three states.
In addition to the strategic influence of India, with its presence in the Indian Ocean with its naval base in Diego Garcia, the U.S. too has a direct defense impact on these small island states and the region as a whole. This 35 sq.km base has the presence of around 30,000 U.S. defense personnel for the purpose of providing protection to the Indo-Pacific region and to balance off the region’s Chinese influence.
This counterbalancing act of U.S. and India by utilizing Indo-Pacific foreign policy to influence domestic politics of these island nations has compromised the integrity of these states. It is apparent that the small island states are susceptible to external pressure and this in turn will hamper the advancement of these states.
Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to U.S. policy
Considering Sri Lanka’s position in the Indian Ocean Rim, it would be a mistake for the United States to disregard the island nation’s strategic importance to its regional policy. Stronger bilateral ties between the two nations could therefore re shape a new diplomatic association in the current century.
Trade with the United States along with aid in the last seven decades has enabled Sri Lanka to grow economically and hence make massive investments to upgrade and constructing new infrastructure. The results of these efforts can be of enormous potential benefit for the U.S. as it builds on its long-term security strategy. As a result of this development aid, Sri Lanka has enjoyed favorable economic conditions conducive to trade, tourism and investment in the recent past. Two-way trade between Sri Lanka and the U.S. stands at USD 3.2 billion while export figures from its garment industry alone stands at USD 2.1 billion. The expansion of Sri Lanka’s economy points towards remarkable prospects for further growth.
Sri Lanka's ocean economy and its possession of the world’s fifth-largest natural deep-water harbor at Trincomalee makes reinforcing ties with Sri Lanka an attractive option. Once occupied by the British Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, the harbour’s location, its massive oil-storage capacity and its updated infrastructure provides further stimulus to revisit the diplomatic orientation between the United States and Sri Lanka.
Securing a better future for U.S.-Sri Lanka relations
Predicting the future of U.S.-Sri Lanka ties is a challenging task. However, there is little doubt that Sri Lanka holds considerable significance in America’s national security agenda.
Implementing this balanced foreign policy for South Asia entails the involvement of mutual responsibility amongst the numerous agencies in both Sri Lanka and the United States. For small island nations like Sri Lanka, a solid political environment is essential to have a prosperous, peaceful and a sovereign country. Hence, it would be prudent to be impartial and non-aligned with each of the great powers in order to secure a better future for the country.
About the Author:
Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Adviser/ Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.’