No Nation is an Island
Metaphorically speaking, Sri Lanka has never been an island; its trade and diplomatic relations traced back to the ancient kingdoms of Asia as well as the ruling empires of Europe. Trade linkages—in the form of goods, services, and knowledge—have long connected Sri Lanka with the rest of the world, including the 1773 Boston Tea Party and the new American republic. Trade in knowledge proved more enduring and important than mere goods and services; and the Portuguese, Dutch, and British all carried Christianity to the predominantly Buddhist nation. Buddhism itself came to the island from India centuries before colonialism. Sri Lanka then acted as a magnifying conduit, diffusing Buddha’s noble teachings around the world and attracting Buddhist scholars like Chinese Monk Fa-hsien in the early fourth century, and peace activists like Army Colonel Henry Olcott of the American Civil War in the late nineteenth century, to its shores. Arab traders introduced Islam; Indian rulers promoted Hinduism. Today, Sri Lanka is a multireligious, multi-ethnic, and multilingual nation. The island—with such diversity within a highly-educated and entrepreneurial population of 20 million—remains a grand central seaport in the Indian Ocean, one that has increasingly become of strategic importance to China, India, and America (CIA). As in ancient times, trade and safe passageway through the Indian Ocean have become a national security matter to each of these and other nations far and near.
In the recent past, the United States has retreated from the Indian Ocean region; in doing so, it allowed “non-traditional donors like the Chinese to fill the vacuum” in Sri Lanka in particular and the South Asian region in general. In its report, “Sri Lanka: Re-charting U.S. Strategy after the War”—known as “The Kerry-Lugar Report”—the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also presented a complete review of the failures of Washington’s approach. The report notes, “While the United States shares with the Indians and Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka.” Both China and India have attempted to fill that void by reasserting claims to restore their legitimacy and historical supremacy over Sri Lanka—a strategically located island at the southern tip of the South Asian sub-continent.
China’s New Silk Road—a strategic engagement with countries along the ancient Silk Road for largely energy security purposes—culminates with the Beijing-funded $100 million Lotus Tower situated in Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo. The hi-tech Lotus Tower will be the tallest structure in South Asia and the nineteenth tallest building in the world—reportedly visible from as far away as New Delhi. The iconography makes India nervous, and jealous. In the meantime, the United States is also uneasy about recent developments in this strategic maritime corridor. Beijing is likely funding the project to reflect one of the core foreign policy interests of China’s peaceful rising strategy. In the midst of this momentous Lotus Tower development, the historically Buddhist nations of China and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)—a Theravada Buddhist nation—have joined forces to distinguish their ancient connections from the majority Hindu population of India and the predominantly Christian nation of the United States. Despite widespread recognition of their political branding as the largest and most powerful democracies, India and the United States respectively represent a lesser union—by way of shared political philosophy and history—when compared to the centuries-old religious and cultural bonds that link China and Sri Lanka together.
In international affairs, nations tend to act based on self-interest. The interplay between various nations promoting their own security in world politics is a dynamic part of realpolitik; former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger defined the term as “calculations of power and national interests.” Foreign policy textbooks characterize this behavioral interplay as geopolitical realism. Former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston captured the very essence of geopolitics when he said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” This behavioral analysis is relevant to understanding the geostrategic CIA drama underway in the Indian Ocean region.
United States as a Global Nation
In the United States, veritable maritime strategist Admiral Alfred Mahan reportedly said, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. …In the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.” He formulated his ideas by observing the behavior of ancient trading nations and colonial powers. The Admiral’s writings influenced ensuing generations of American strategists and policymakers to think about the United States as a global nation. In fact, the ideas espoused by the Founding Fathers on trade and commerce—and united the thirteen original colonies might bind nations together for global peace through maritime power.
In this regard, two Founding Fathers were most influential: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton was the first secretary of the Treasury and a pioneer of the American economic and financial system. He played a pivotal role in creating the U.S. Navy, then tasked with protecting international trade on the high seas. Faith in trade, Hamilton said that a “commercial republics, like ours, will never be disposed to waste themselves in ruinous contentions with each other,” because they are “governed by mutual interest” that will “cultivate a spirit of mutual amity and concord.” His philosophic rival, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, agreed with Hamilton when it came to trade. Jefferson pronounced. “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” Their revered leader President George Washington concurred when he wisely remarked, “Our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand” in dealing with the Native Indians, among thirteen states, and with other nations.
To better understand the United States and its international behavior, the contrasting ideas between Hamilton and Jefferson are critically important. In pastoral Virginia, Jefferson advocated a grassroots village democracy within an agrarian nation that would create self-government to pursue happiness in their rural livelihoods. From built-up New York, Hamilton envisioned a manufacturing nation with global trade controlled by a strong federal government. Their different locations, backgrounds, and strategic perceptions led them to divergent policy orientations that were also rooted in the opposing visions of two groups of early colonial settlers—the earliest non-native Americans. The first, Virginia colonists, were realists who searched for wealth and power in Yorktown—their entrepreneurial zeal and sheer determination seemingly galvanized Hamilton. The second, the idealistic Pilgrims in Massachusetts, promoted religious freedom and democracy in Plymouth—Jefferson was more sympathetic to these spiritually-minded settlers. With this background, the evolving American experience reverberates around this tension between Hamilton’s capitalistic economic system on one hand and Jefferson’s political democracy on the other. Despite this philosophical rivalry, both Founding Fathers agreed that trade brings peace and unity to the United States and the world.
Before Christopher Columbus, Admiral Zheng He
There is nothing new in America’s purpose-driven founding philosophy—trade for peace—as colonial America and the Middle Kingdom engaged in peaceful trade for many years. Beginning with the Empress of China, which sailed from New York Harbor on Washington's Birthday—22 February 1784—the new American Republic’s trade with China was relatively peaceful until the 1840s when the first Opium War broke out between China and the United Kingdom. Not unlike the mercantile colonial powers in Europe, Chinese rulers dispatched commercial and diplomatic envoys. The envoys were not necessarily sent to conquer other lands but to formalize the recognition and legitimacy of the Ming emperor as the so called “Son of Heaven” and to search for knowledge and national treasures.
Almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America, the Ming emperor’s Muslim envoy Admiral Zheng He made his first visit to Sri Lanka in 1405. In a traditional Confucian manner, the admiral demanded that Sinhalese King Vira Alakesvara pay tribute and obedience to the Chinese Emperor. The Ming visitor also reportedly wanted to take back the sacred bowl, hair, and tooth relics of the Buddha. Chinese interest in Sri Lanka goes back to the Great Kublai Khan, when the founder of the Yuan Dynasty arrived in 1284 with the intent of leaving with the same sacred tooth relics of Buddha. The two-year travelogue of Chinese Monk Fa-hsien—written in the fifth-century—describes the Buddhist treasures in Sri Lanka, and his Chinese translation—of Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts—was widely known since the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty.
The Ming admiral’s second visit in 1410 led to a conflict between the Ming Dynasty and the Kingdom of Kotte. The war was ostensibly to stop piracy and acquire the tooth relic. With thousands of sailors, the admiral broke through the capital of Kotte and captured the Sinhalese king, queen, and other notables. Admiral Zheng took these prisoners to China to apologize to the Ming emperor for their misdeeds, who instead released them in 1411. When the captors returned with the emperor’s nominee to the island’s throne in 1414, the powerful new King Parakramabahu VI—instated in the absence of the captured king—quickly eliminated the arriving Chinese emissary. This move further heralded a rise in nationalism that was unifying Sri Lanka against the foreign influence.
Apart from religious and political objectives, the Chinese expeditions were also commercially motivated. An archeological tablet, found at the southern port city of Galle, dated 15 February 1409, has a trilingual inscription—in Chinese, Persian, and Tamil—indicating that the purpose of the admiral’s visit was to announce the mandate of the Ming emperor to recognize his legitimacy among foreign rulers. According to the inscription on the stele, the ambassador offered valuable gifts like gold, silver, and silk to a local Buddhist temple on Adam’s Peak. The Tamil script praises the god Vishnu; the Persian text invokes Allah. The inscription has a message to the world invoking “the blessings of the Hindu deities for a peaceful world built on trade.” Above all, trade diplomacy was the most vital aspect of all seven of Admiral Zheng’s voyages to the region between 1405 and 1433.
Dormant History Revives Itself
The historical episodes of Sino-Sri Lanka relations were dormant for almost five hundred years of colonialism until Sri Lanka gained its independence from the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally from the British in 1948. The newly independent island established its first bilateral agreement on Rubber-Rice with China in 1952 soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since 1957, formal diplomatic relations began to expand, as several heads of state have visited each other’s capitals. The completion of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in 1973 was a landmark of friendship among other projects. More recently, Sri Lanka established close relations as China provided military, financial, and diplomatic support for Sri Lanka to defeat the Tamil Tigers, ending the over-quarter-century-old Eelam War in 2009. The new Sino-Sri Lankan relationship could be heralded as historic in their post-war cultural and economic collaboration—which is viewed as mutually beneficial for the two nations.
Symbolized by the Buddhist-inspired Lotus Tower, the Chinese foreign policy strategy of a peaceful rising is explicitly geoeconomic and nationalistic; it is intended to address China’s national development needs and to meet its increasing demand for resources and oil, which flows from the Middle East and Africa, through the Indian Ocean, to Chinese ports. Deng Xiaoping, the pivotal Chinese economic reformer, described his strategic statecraft of peaceful development as if he were the new philosopher-cum-leader Lao Tzu of modern China: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; never claim leadership; make some contributions.” The latest evolution of the China’s New Silk Road plan of action is the “String of Pearls” naval strategy. Due to the importance of Sri Lanka in accomplishing this plan, China has invested significantly on the island including outlays for the massive Hambantota harbor and the Buddhist-inspired lotus telecommunications tower.
India and the Crown Jewel of the String of Pearls
While China further developed ties with Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan, the Maldives, and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, Indian leaders in Delhi expressed concerns over Sri Lanka’s new strategic partnership with Beijing. In response, Delhi began to expand its outreach to Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles to protect its ships as piracy became a key regional issue, which is also important to China and the United States.
As the United States gradually departs from its military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans has expanded to include Australia. The port city of Darwin in northern Australia and Cocos Island—between Australia and Sri Lanka—are now part of the American defense posture to demonstrate its active presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Of course, this is in addition to the archipelago of Diego Garcia at the heart of the Indian Ocean—the strategic U.S. Navy airbase located on the atoll is under lease from the United Kingdom until 2036.
Since the signing of the Indo-American nuclear treaty in 2008, India’s friendly relations with the United States have soared to new heights. The public perception of Indian power was recently amplified when New Delhi successfully tested an Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile with freshly acquired American nuclear technology and expertise. The test was widely recognized as an implicit demonstration of force toward Beijing, which lies within range of the ICBM. Aware of the need for stability in Sino-Indian relations, China downplayed the significance of New Delhi’s deterrence capabilities.
As India and America developed mutual respect and increased bilateral relations over the past decade, Sri Lanka maintained its traditional friendly partnership with its powerful northern neighbor. Their trade relations and investment initiatives have been increasing since the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement. Post-Eelam War construction and development projects have helped affected areas in the north and northeastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Greater trade relations, including tourism and medical exchanges, are projected to grow in the years ahead.
With Sri Lanka’s enhanced partnership with China, New Delhi believes that the countries in South Asia—particularly Bangladesh, Burma, the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—are being used by China to “concircle”—a portmanteau of contain and circle—India and limit the Indian sphere of influence not only in the Indian Ocean but also in the South China Sea. India views China as a rising maritime and trading power that seeks to revive its glorious past in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Sri Lanka lies in the midst of a game of strategic geopolitical competition and geoeconomic cooperation, acting as if trade will always lead to peace with tension and innovation. To counterbalance the Chinese confluence, India has engaged in two primary strategic projects with Sri Lanka: the Sethu Samudram Ship Canal (SSSC) project in the Palk Strait—the body of water that divides India from Sri Lanka—and the Trincomalee harbor in China Bay on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.
1. The Strategic Ram Sethu Canal
British Commander Alfred Taylor of the Indian Marines originally conceived the SSSC project in 1860 to reduce the cost and time of navigation around Sri Lanka. The nationalistic-learning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India initially opposed the dredging of Ram Sethu—a legendary bridge built by God Rama in the Palk Strait. The majority Hindu-led BJP politicians are sensitive to the interference of their religious conviction and reverence for Hindu Lord Rama. In addition to the mythological origin of the bridge, Ram Sethu is a chain of limestone shoals that span from India to Sri Lanka, thereby prohibiting navigation by large container and military ships in the narrow waters by the Tamil Nadu State of India and Sri Lanka. The Indian Supreme Court later dismissed the controversial case as the Tamil Nadu state’s chief minister wanted Ram Sethu registered as a national monument as a strategy to stop the project. With assurance from Sonia Gandhi (the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the shadowy power-broker in the current government), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the inauguration of the project in 2005 that the project “will give a boost to Tamil Nadu’s already developed automobile sector. Let Tamil Nadu be a rival to Detroit [in America] in future.” As dredging and construction advance, the national debate continues.
Beside the Hindu mythology and history, the primary issue regarding the SSSC project is environmental, as sediments and toxins will negatively affect marine ecology around Sri Lanka. Food security is also a contentious issue as most people, especially Tamils living in the coastal areas, depend largely on small-scale fishing for their livelihood. But the most important issues for Colombo are bilateral and multilateral issues, particularly:
- The possible re-emergence of sectarian struggles—between Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Nadu state in southern India—that would create instability and chaos in governance and bilateral relations between and within the two countries.
- Favorable China-centric views in Sri Lanka—related to the Hambantota Harbor and Lotus Tower projects—may possibly ignite opposition and civil unrest, as happened with Burma’s Myitsone dam project.
The Sri Lankan government is, however, silent on the SSSC issue for strategic and security reasons. Apart from reasons for preserving Ram Setu based upon cultural heritage and religious beliefs, the de facto separation—of India and Sri Lanka—by the canal is good news for the Sri Lankan government. Through the destruction of Ram Setu, the Colombo government gains not only greater political autonomy, as perceived by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, but also the severing of kinship between Tamil people in India’s Tamil Nadu state and Sri Lanka’s Jaffna and Trincomalee regions.
2. The Strategic Trincomalee Harbor
The Trincomalee Harbor on Sri Lanka’s eastern seaboard has been cause for dilemma for former colonial rulers in London and post-independent Indian regimes in New Delhi. For centuries, this deep natural harbor has been considered one of the best ports for commercial and military purposes by Western navigators and traders. British Admiral Horatio Nelson characterized Trincomalee as “the finest harbor in the world.” During World War II, Trincomalee protected the British Seventh Fleet during World War II from Japanese bombardment. In 1947, Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake of Ceylon (as the country was known prior to 1972) signed a defense treaty with the British as a prerequisite to independence and said, “We cannot defend ourselves. … I see at the moment only country with sufficient interest to defend us at their expense and that country is Great Britain.” The accord allowed the use of Trincomalee naval base and Katunayake air base by the Royal Navy and Air Force respectively to keep India at bay. The British relinquished these bases in 1957, however, following the request of socialist Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike as part of his nationalization efforts.
Fearful of India as the Eelam War began in 1983, pro-American President J. R. Jayewardene, in 1985, reminded Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the 1947 defense pact had not been formally abrogated. When Sri Lankan President Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the 1987 Indian Peacekeeping Forces Accord (IPKF), it was appended that Trincomalee or any other port may not be used by foreign military. The Indian government believed the use of the port by a foreign military would be detrimental to India’s security. This mutual understanding continues despite the fact that the 1947 British-Sri Lanka accord is still in place. Neither the British nor American governments opposed the IPKF Accord; hence, the balance of power changed to India’s favor. Ambiguity is part of geopolitical gamesmanship as British and American ships occasionally call into the harbor for refueling and repair.
In 1990, the United States began to actively look for military basing opportunities in Sri Lanka to complement facilities in Thailand and Singapore used for American operations in South Asia. The centralized location prompted teams from the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Intelligence Agency to visit a number of strategic locations in 2001, including Palaly in the north, Kuda Oya in the south, and China Bay at Trincomalee in the east. The base could serve as more than a refueling and repair site but the key stakeholders do not speak publicly about these possibilities. For now, China Bay at Trincomalee presents a muted trilemma for China, India, and America.
America’s Trade-for-Peace Strategy
The ambiguous and mysterious nature of these strategic and defense relationships was later dispelled when the United States and Sri Lanka signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in 2007. The military pact—known also as the NATO Mutual Support Act of 1979—falls under the jurisdiction of the Pentagon in the United States. This ten-year renewable accord provides a framework for the transfer and exchange of logistical military supplies and increased cooperation during peacekeeping missions and humanitarian missions as well as joint exercises allowing the use of ports, airports, and air space. With some variations, such agreements are common; the United States has ACSAs with ninety other countries to protect and promote global trade relations. To reciprocate, these countries receive American military training, educational exchanges, and infrastructural support and equipment.
To promote bilateral trade, the United States and Sri Lanka signed the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2002. This agreement has been the primary vehicle for bilateral economic discussion to address a range of impediments to greater trade and investment flows. In addition, a long-standing agreement between the two countries has been in place since 1951 for a Voice of America (VoA) transmitting facility. It appears that Hamiltonian economic determinism (through bilateral trade, especially tea, since the late eighteenth century) and Jeffersonian aspirations for democratic expression (since independence in 1948) are already implanted into Sri Lanka’s foreign policy infrastructure. In that sense, Sri Lanka’s external affairs mirrors America’s founding vision in action—proving the assertion that the United States is indeed an indispensable nation that guided the former British colony to emulate liberalized trade policies and democratic traditions in the island. American foreign policy—extending through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs—further influenced Sri Lanka to adopt open market system and democratic governance.
While Colombo has received expansive investment from China, Sri Lanka’s largest single export market has long been, and remains, the United States. Sri Lanka’s economic and trading relations are largely dependent on its traditional Western and the Middle Eastern partners. Sri Lankan emigrants and students have historically flocked to the United States (where they have established a vibrant Sri Lankan-American community)—not mainland China, which has only just begun to entertain a national immigration policy.
Along with these issues, navigational safety has become an interest common to all trading powers whether Chinese, Indian, or American. In addition to the dangerous piracy issue, four maritime “choke points” or narrow channels are critical to Sri Lanka’s trade relations: the Suez Canal in Egypt; Bab-el-Mandeb bordering Djibouti and Yemen; the Straits of Hormuz bordering Iran and Oman; and the Straits of Malacca bordering Indonesia and Malaysia. The presence of the oriental and occidental maritime powers (i.e., China and the United States) is an advantage to Sri Lanka as its relations remain fundamentally cordial with all nations.
The CIA Drama in Action
The global economic recession has prompted many countries to concentrate on trade and investment promotion over austerity measures. With its peaceful rise development strategy, China is reinvigorating the ancient Silk Road with horizontal and vertical linkages to a New Silk Road that connects sea routes, roads, railway lines, and gas and oil pipelines—all intended to export Chinese products and import natural resources.
The spectacular rise of this economic power has accelerated over time. The World Trade Organization (WTO) admitted China in 2001; since then, China has increasingly acquired market access to the United States. The “Chimerican”—China and America—relationship is symbiotically linked as exporter-importer and creditor-debtor nations. “Chindian”—China and Indian— relations have also warmed as both nations appeared to resolve border disputes and other issues. The American presence in the Indian Ocean, with the Diego Garcia Navy support facility, is considered a deterrent and source of stability for the region.
As each nation promotes its national security interests, all countries benefit from stability and safer passage without piracy. The perception of Chinese economic strength increased as Beijing’s engagement in South Asian countries expanded with its “String of Pearls” strategy. This is an explicitly geoeconomic strategy with an implicit military component as commercial and Indian Navy ships navigate the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. New Delhi’s belief is that China is “concircling” India, and it must be counterpoised with the convergence of Indian-American economic, nuclear, and defense collaboration. As Beijing, Delhi, and Washington all move strategically to advance their national interests, Sri Lanka has emerged as the tiny historical actor at the center of this drama.
For the United States, Sri Lanka’s geographic location matters critically even though its consumer market is smaller compared to other South Asian countries. With two International Telecommunications Satellite Organization stations in Sri Lanka and the Diego Garcia naval base, the United States has positioned itself strategically in the Indian Ocean. The emerging American defense posture in Australia and its Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean sends a pivotal message throughout South and Southeast Asia. Through the ACSA, the Pentagon has the power to access both the Colombo and Trincomalee Harbors and all airports.
Invisible Attraction to the Indispensable Nation
For Sri Lanka, the American market is a favorable and sustainable economic factor; the United States is an importance source of funds, knowledge, and technology transfers enabled by the Sri Lankan-American community and Sri Lankan expatriates. This importance will increase as the number of Sri Lankans studying in the United States grows. Like Singapore, Sri Lanka can benefit from America’s new interest in South Asia if the national leadership acts strategically in post-Eelam War development initiatives and focuses on common features shared by both countries: trade in goods, services, and more importantly, knowledge.
The attraction of trade—unlike religion, ethnicity, or language—as a force for unity has led to unity, stability, and progress. Contrasting to other empires the world has seen, the United States’ influence has been based on trade for mutual gain both among the fifty states and with other nations. Thomas Paine, a prolific founding father, wrote, “Our plan is commerce…Her trade will always be a protection.” This philosophic tradition—etched into American history from Article 1 Section 8 in the Commerce Clauseof the U.S. Constitution—continues even today in the American-led WTO.
After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, former Republican President George W. Bush said, “We will defeat [the terrorists] by expanding and encouraging world trade.” Democratic President Barack Obama highlighted the other side of the United States’ founding vision when he declared that our trade and investment “feed our commerce and bind us together.” Both Republican and Democratic presidents, despite their philosophical and strategic policy differences, have a unified message: trade brings peace and unity. Sri Lanka has demonstrated that peace and unity in commercial relations. These relations are the American drama entrenched in Indian Ocean geopolitics—almost as if Hamilton and Jefferson were alive and well today.
Patrick Mendis is a distinguished senior fellow and affiliate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy and the author of Trade for Peace and Commercial Providence: The Secret Destiny of the American Empire. This article is adapted from the ideas of author’s 2012 special lecture at the General Sir John Kotelawala Defense University in Sri Lanka. The author wishes to thank Maggie Dewane, Leah Green, Steve McClure, and Eric Smyth for their valuable comments and suggestions.