Sri Lanka is caught between the need for foreign investment and the risk of being the object of a great power tug-of-war.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month was the first by a Japanese foreign minister in 15 years. Governmental confirmation of Sri Lanka’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) project came during Kono’s visit, when the prime minister’s office revealed that an MoU was to be signed with Japan to build a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU). The FSRU and LNG terminal project will be a joint venture by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority with both Japan and India. The LNG terminal is to be located within Colombo port – one of the busiest ports in South Asia and an important trans-shipment hub in the region.
Japan’s public broadcaster NHK described Kono’s visit as being “part of Japanese government’s plan to promote cooperation for port expansion projects.” The low-profile visit concluded with a tour of Colombo port, and Japanese media did not hesitate to place it in the context of Japan’s concerns over China’s growing maritime footprint in the region. Before the port visit, according to NHK World, Kono told reporters who accompanied his delegation that “China is increasing involvement in port development in Sri Lanka,” and that “projects to build ports and other infrastructure should be open to any country.” The remark flagged Japan’s concerns over China’s major role in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development, especially the Chinese-built, Chinese-run Hambantota port in the south.
Japan’s concept is “to develop free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region as an international public good,” Toshihide Ando, deputy press secretary of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a briefing with a selected group of local journalists in Colombo. Asked about the status of talks with regard to the eastern port of Trincomalee, the development of which Japan has indicated interest in, he declined to comment.
The increasingly anxious interest shown by Japan and India in investing in Colombo and Trincomalee ports would seem to be related to concerns arising from Sri Lanka’s recent finalization of the lease of Hambantota port to a Chinese company that holds a majority stake. The apparent loss of sovereign control over the port, strategically located near major East-West sea lanes, has led to fears that it may become a Chinese military base, in spite of Sri Lanka’s assurances to the contrary. “We want to ensure that we develop all our ports, and all these ports are used for commercial activity, transparent activity, and will not be available to anyone for any military activity,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was reported as saying in Tokyo last April.
With China being seen as a common enemy, Japan’s strategic interests have begun to converge with those of the United States and India, and a closer strategic partnership has evolved among the three. Japan now participates in the Malabar naval drills with the United States and India, and uses the same rhetoric, with terminology like “Indo-Pacific” to refer to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, blurring the boundaries.
Japan has always been generous with aid to Sri Lanka and is a major development partner. During Sri Lanka’s war years, Japan was one of the four co-chairs of the peace process; when the Western co-chairs threatened to cut off aid, Japan reassured Sri Lanka that it would not follow suit. Japanese envoys never fail to recall the speech made by Sri Lanka’s former president, J. R. Jayewardena, at the San Francisco peace conference in 1951, where Sri Lanka came to Japan’s defense. Then-Finance Minister Jayewardene quoted the words of the Buddha, saying “hatred ceases not by hatred but by love,” and asked that no reparations be exacted that would harm Japan’s economy. “The Japanese still remember that this speech supported Japan’s return to the international society after the WWII,” Kono said in a written interview with the state-run Daily News ahead of his visit.
Against this backdrop, Japan’s interest in investing in Sri Lankan ports would normally be seen as a welcome development. But with India a partner in the proposed joint venture, and given the evolving strategic landscape, it would now appear to be embedded in a larger trilateral project of countering Chinese influence. This could mean there is a hidden cost — in that Sri Lanka risks being unnecessarily drawn into a big power conflict if there is an escalation in tensions between China and the United States and/or India.
In tracking Japan’s role in shaping the regional security architecture, analyst Brian Kalan’s observation two years ago in Southfront would seem relevant. “The only question is how Japan will decide to utilize their naval power in the coming decades,” he said. “Will it be used in the pursuit of ensuring their independence and peaceful relations with their regional partners, or in the self-destructive pursuit of U.S. hegemony in the region?”
Lasanda Kurukulasuriya is a Colombo-based independent journalist, a correspondent for the New Internationalist and columnist for the Daily Mirror.