Sri Lanka, America and India: Two Suitors for a Lady

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, December 2002 (ID. 2002-12-01)
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1. A Little Story

2. Sri Lanka Flirts with America and India

1. A Little Story

There was this young woman of loose moral character in a small township. Most everyone in the township knew everybody. She loved no one but herself. She was reasonably beautiful. That and her loose moral character attracted young men to her. So there were a few suitors for her. 

She enjoyed receiving expensive gifts from her suitors. There were especially two suitors of considerable means. She played one against the other to get expensive gifts from both. She would tell one, "Oh, he gave me this bracelet. What had you given me lately? I think I will become his steady girlfriend." So he gives her an expensive diamond necklace. Then she goes to the other, shows him the necklace and says that she may decide to become the other man's steady girlfriend. So he rushes and buys her another expensive gift. This went on for a little while. Soon both her suitors understood what was going on and stopped seeing her. No more gifts. No more pampering. She died alone a spinster.

2. Sri Lanka Flirts with America and India

Sri Lankan Government's recent diplomatic actions remind us of this young woman of loose moral character. Sri Lankan Government is playing neighboring India against the United States of America (USA). India is a regional South Asian power, with even greater ambitions. United States of America is the sole superpower of the world with its own strategic and economic interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The old "rivalry" between India and the United States of the cold war era is past. Everything may look "buddy-buddy" between India and America outside. But both are highly suspicious of each other, especially India. India has greater ambitions for the future and does not want the "big boy" America around. United States is not totally trusting of India either; they definitely should not.

In is in the background of this geopolitical dance between America and India is Sri Lanka playing its dubious game of pitching one suitor against the other. India does not want United States of America getting a foothold in Sri Lanka. In fact, an exchange of letters between Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 stipulated that "Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests" (a definite reference to America during those cold war days when India was an "unofficial ally", or at least a good friend, to the then Soviet Union) [Reference 1].

Indian Government considers that those letters and the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord to which the letters were annexed are still in effect. By the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the then  Sri Lankan President Premadasa considered the accord null and void for all practical purposes and asked Indian troops to leave the island. But the present Sri Lankan Government keeps a fuzzy view about it. Sri Lanka seems to interpret that the provisions of the letters about "ports for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests" do not apply to United States of America any more under the present post cold war circumstances of "friendship" between India and America. Indian Government, however, does not seem to hold that view. It seems to hold the view that transit facilities or bases for American military can be offered only if SriLanka gets India's prior "approval". A case in point.

In May 2002, the Sri Lankan Government negotiated an "Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA)" with the United States. This agreement would allow United States military to utilize Sri Lanka's ports, airports and air space. It was widely anticipated that the agreement would be signed during Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's visit to America in July 2002. It did not happen. Why? India quietly let it be known to Sri Lanka of its "displeasure" about the agreement. India did not want any American or other western military presence, even a transit arrangement, in Sri Lanka. At the time of this writing the agreement was yet to be signed. Sri Lanka plans to have the cake and eat it. It would provide its facilities open to the United States but without a formal agreement. 

Red lights should be blinking in Washington at the US State Department and the Defense Department. Will the United States be able to avail itself of Sri Lankan facilities at a time of need (for example, an urgent military operation in the Middle East or Central Asia) if India quietly conveys its objection to Sri Lanka? With or without a signature on a piece of paper, can the United States of America put its eggs in the Sri Lankan basket?

Even at the best of times Sri Lanka is not trustworthy. Anyone dealing with it should be aware of its duplicity and double-dealings. I remember reading the following incidence in the newspapers. United Nations imposed an economic embargo on Iraq in 1990 (this was just before the 1991 Gulf War). United States Navy was at the forefront of enforcing the naval blockade. One day a suspicious ship going towards Iraq was located. American naval vessels rushed to that ship. It was a Sri Lankan ship going to Iraq, surreptitiously breaking the United Nations embargo. Soon the Gulf War broke out. Once the war broke out it was evident that the United States led coalition was committed to liberating Kuwait. www.tamiltribune.com Now Sri Lanka switched sides and offered to help America by allowing United States Air Force to refuel in Sri Lanka.

War clouds are gathering over Iraq again. On October 11, 2002 Sri Lankan Prime Minister told that Sri Lanka would not provide America any transit facilities if war broke out between Iraq and a coalition led by America, because there was no defense pact between the two countries. But, somehow, according to Sri Lankan logic, it is all right for Sri Lanka to seek weapons and training from the United States although there was no defense pact.

What America needs in South Asia is not a wavering, opportunistic friend but a solid and capable ally that would stand by it whether it rains or shines.

UPDATE (December 2007)

Sri Lanka and United States of America (USA) signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) on March 5, 2007 almost five years after it was tentatively agreed in 2002. The ACSA would be valid for 10 years. Whether India finally gave its nod for the agreement after almost five years or if Sri Lanka did it without seeking India's approval is not known.


1. Tamils Fought to Protect American Interests in Sri Lanka (by Thanjai Nalankilli), TAMIL TRIBUNE, November 1997.


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