The tug of war between China and Japan over their roles in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has prompted Tokyo to strengthen ties with Sri Lanka. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that Tokyo is ready to help the island nation become a regional hub of the Indian Ocean once again.
After concluding his April 10-16 visit to Japan, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe confirmed that the Asian powerhouse agreed to provide all sorts of help to the tiny South Asian country so that it could emerge as a major maritime power in the IOR. The premier praised his Japanese counterpart Abe for offering an olive branch to Colombo, saying that Sri Lanka would soon boost commercial activities by developing all its ports with the help of Japanese technology.
Speaking at a press conference on April 17, the PM said: “Sri Lanka hopes to become the regional hub of the Indian Ocean again. We want to ensure that we develop all our ports that are used for commercial activity. They will not be available to anyone for any military activity.”
Foreign policy experts are of the opinion that the word “anyone”, used by the Sri Lankan premier, refers to China. Although PM Wickremesinghe did not mention any specific countries, all the Asian powers (like Japan and India) know that China invests a huge amount of money in Sri Lankan port projects as a part of its ambitions to build maritime routes to the oil-rich West Asia and on to Europe.
With Sri Lanka sitting near shipping lanes through which much of the world’s trade passes, China’s move has made Japan, India and America nervous. During the Lankan premier’s recent visit, Prime Minister Abe made clear that Japan would not allow China to take full control of the IOR with the help of Sri Lanka. In the presence of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, he said: “The era of the Indo-Pacific is now being ushered in. Yet, however, true regional prosperity cannot come into being without the realisation of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” It could only be possible, if Sri Lanka manages to achieve sustainable growth as a hub and “develops ports that are open to all”, stressed the Japanese PM.
Prime Minister Abe further assured his Sri Lankan counterpart that Tokyo would support Colombo in a bid to counter China’s advances in the IOR. He announced that Japan would help the island nation strengthen its Coast Guard capabilities. Abe made the announcement just before issuing a joint statement with Wickremesinghe on the basis of which the two countries would boost co-operation in the maritime field.
According to experts, Japan sanctioned USD 9 million for the construction of port facilities in north-eastern Sri Lanka mainly because of its geographical location. The island nation is located strategically along the sea lanes that link Japan with petroleum-rich West Asian countries. So, the move will help Tokyo import petroleum products from the Arab nations via Sri Lanka.
To counter China’s growing influence, Premier Abe also requested Sri Lanka to take part in joint training between the Coast Guards of Japan and India. He hinted that Japan’s IOR policy would include Sri Lanka, stressing: “In order to establish free and open Indian-Pacific waters, it is indispensable that Sri Lanka serve as a hub with port facilities open to all.” Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, too, admitted that open and free waters were a requirement for regional prosperity and social stability.
With Sri Lanka finding it difficult to wriggle out of China’s clutches because of massive debt it owes to Beijing, Colombo has also decided to allow India to jointly develop the Trincomalee port in north-eastern part of the country. On April 18, a senior Sri Lankan official said that the proposed move would help his country balance things out. The official also revealed that Sri Lanka owes more than USD 8 billion to China in debt. He told the press that China had provided assistance worth USD 5.056 billion to Sri Lanka between 1971 and 2012. Colombo received around USD 4.7 billion or 94% of this amount after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. China committed funding worth another USD 2.18 billion after 2012, mostly in loans at high rate of interest. Earlier, Colombo had approached Beijing to convert a portion of its debt into equity for infrastructure investment by the Chinese companies. However, China rejected Sri Lanka’s request, thus, prompting Colombo to seek help from Japan and India.
China, which has been heavily involved in building and repairing port facilities along coastlines from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, wants to stamp its authority on the passage to the Indian Ocean. However, Japan and India have decided not to allow the Asian giant to capture all the Sri Lankan ports, (making it difficult for other nations to use them).