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US Senate Report on Sri Lanka: U.S. Cannot Afford to Lose Sri Lanka due to its Strategic Importance - Page 3

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US Senate Report on Sri Lanka: U.S. Cannot Afford to Lose Sri Lanka due to its Strategic Importance
Page 2
Strategic Interests In Sri Lanka
Recommendations On Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan Government should:
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Strategic Interests In Sri Lanka

“Sri Lanka has been a friend and democratic partner of the United States since gaining independence in 1948 and has supported U.S. military operations overseas such as during the first Gulf War. Commercial contacts go back to 1787, when New England sailors first anchored in Sri Lanka’s harbors to engage in trade. Sri Lanka is strategically located at the nexus of maritime trading routes connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. It is directly in the middle of the ‘‘Old World,’’ where an estimated half of the world’s container ships transit the Indian Ocean.

“American interests in the region include securing energy resources from the Persian Gulf and maintaining the free flow of trade in the Indian Ocean. These interests are also important to one of America’s strategic partners, Japan, who is almost totally dependent on energy supplies transiting the Indian Ocean. The three major threats in the Indian Ocean come from terrorism, interstate conflict, and piracy. There have been some reports of pirate activity in the atoll islands near Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka’s geopolitical position has changed in recent years. The United States has developed closer ties with India while Sri Lanka moved towards China. India has been very concerned with instability in Sri Lanka and has worked quietly behind the scenes to push for faster resettlement for Tamils. India directly suffered from the spillover from the Sri Lankan conflict in 1991 when a LTTE female suicide bomber assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi, reportedly in response to Ghandi’s decision to send an Indian Peace Keeping force to Sri Lanka in 1987.

Communal tensions in Sri Lanka have the ability to undermine stability in India, particularly in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to 60 million Hindu Tamils. India’s large Tamil population just across the Paulk Strait fuels fears among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese community, who represent 80 percent of the Sri Lankan population and are concentrated in the lower two-thirds of the country, that they could be- come a minority under siege. While India has no apparent interest in stoking conflict in Sri Lanka, Indian officials are reportedly increasingly concerned about their strategic role in the Indian Ocean and China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka.

“Chinese activities in Sri Lanka are largely economic, focusing billions of dollars on military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development. While these are loans that will need to be repaid and do not contribute much towards the local economy, they come without any political strings, a fact which makes them attractive to the Sri Lankan Government. According to the Congressional Research Service, ‘‘Chinese activity in the region appears to be seeking friends like Sri Lanka to secure its sea lines of communication from the Straits of Hormuz and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean region to the Strait of Malacca to facilitate trade and secure China’s energy imports.’’

“For instance, in 2007, China reached a billion dollar deal with Sri Lanka to develop a deepwater port in the south at the sleepy fishing village of Hambantota. In 2008, China gave Sri Lanka nearly $1 billion in economic assistance according to the Congressional Research Service. In 2009, China was granted an exclusive investment zone in Mirigama, 34 miles from Colombo’s port. Even for those that dismiss China’s ‘‘string of pearls’’ strategy as overblown, there is concern about growing Chinese influence on the Sri Lankan Government. During the closing stages of the separatist war, for example, China blocked Western-led efforts to impose a truce through the United Nations Security Council and continued supplying arms to the Sri Lankan Government. Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the United States, China, and India is viewed by some as a key piece in a larger geopolitical dynamic, what has been referred to as a new ‘‘Great Game.’’ While all three countries share an interest in securing maritime trade routes, the United States has invested relatively few economic and security resources in Sri Lanka, preferring to focus instead on the political environment. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance to American interests has been neglected as a result. The Sri Lankan Government says American attitudes and military restrictions led it to build relationships with China, Burma, Iran, and Libya.

The Minister of Science and Technology and All-Party Representative Committee Chairman Tissa Vitarana Minister told committee staff, ‘‘We have the United States to thank for pushing us closer to China.’’ According to Vitarana, President Rajapaksa was forced to reach out to other countries because the West refused to help Sri Lanka finish the war against the LTTE. These calculations— if left unchecked—threaten long-term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.


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