US seeks to rapidly enhance SL Navy’s capabilities to ensure ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’

Saturday, 30 March 2019 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The United States seeks to enhance military engagement with Sri Lanka, particularly with the country’s Navy as the island nation remains a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian Ocean, to ensure a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, a top US military official told Congress on Wednesday.

At the House Armed Services Committee hearing on US National Security Challenges and US Military Activities in the Indo-Pacific on Wednesday, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, US Navy Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) said in the 21st century, US security and prosperity will increasingly depend upon a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region and it is of vital national interest to ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific over the short- and long-term.

Admiral Davidson told the House Committee that while the United States strives to promote a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, China is leveraging its economic instrument of power in ways that can undermine the autonomy of countries across the region. He said that Sri Lanka, in December 2017, has to hand over the control of the newly-built Hambantota seaport to Beijing with a 99-year lease because Sri Lanka could no longer afford its debt payments to China.

The top Navy official said Sri Lanka remains a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian Ocean, and military-to-military relationship between the two countries continues to strengthen.

However, political turmoil and ethnic tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations remain drivers of instability and potential obstacles to continued growth in our partnership.

“Moreover, Sri Lanka has handed over the deep water port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease due to its mounting debts to China, which has caused international concern. Despite the political upheaval, it is in our interests to continue military collaboration and cooperation with Sri Lankan Forces.”

Davidson said USINDOPACOM cooperation with the Sri Lankan Military centres on building capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as humanitarian demining, medical assistance, and peacekeeping operations. Increasing navy-to-navy engagement with Sri Lanka will be a USINDOPACOM focus in 2019.

He said the Sri Lankan Navy is a well-trained and professional force with the potential to contribute to multi-lateral maritime interoperability in the Indian Ocean. The recent transfer of an excess US Coast Guard cutter to Sri Lanka in August 2018, along with additional platforms from Japan and India, provide the Sri Lankan Navy greater capabilities to contribute to regional maritime domain awareness initiatives.

“Going forward, it is necessary to sustain engagement with Sri Lanka, particularly the navy, and construct a multi-lateral approach to capacity building with like-minded partners to rapidly enhance the Sri Lankan Navy’s capabilities,” Admiral Davidson said.