In some ways, Sri Lanka is a model. After decades of civil strife and outright civil war, the Sri Lankan military did what hundreds of well-paid UN officials and diplomats could not: Return peace to the island. No sooner had the island nation’s military defeated the Tamil Tigers, however, then the United Nations supported by Western states including the United States launched investigations into its methods and human rights abuses during the finals battles.
With the West seemingly determined to punish Sri Lanka for its military success, it perhaps is no surprise that authorities in Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the administrative capital of the country, have turned toward both China and increasingly Iran for support. But just because Sri Lanka’s move doesn’t surprise does not mean it should not be of concern to those concerned about China’s rise or an inward-looking Washington forfeiting its strategic position from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
In recent months, the Iranian navy has grown increasingly aggressive toward the United States and other shipping operating in international waters in the Persian Gulf. But, the days of Iran limiting itself to the Persian Gulf are long since passed. Whereas once Iran described itself as a regional power, it now defines itself as a pan-regional power and, in recent years, has described its strategic frontiers stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean.
That Iranian ships—like their Chinese counterparts—are increasingly calling on the Sri Lankan port of Colombo should raise concerns, for they signal that Iran, like China, seeks more of a blue water navy and an international presence. For both navies, a limiting factor has always been logistical support but here Sri Lanka can provide greater support and relief.
If the last few years teach anything, the United States cannot take its allies for granted. It need not ignore real human rights concerns among partners and allies but, at the same time, it should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It may not be too late to show Sri Lanka that it is better to orient itself to the West than to China or the rejectionist Middle Eastern bloc. That is the best way to preserve human rights leverage. And if outreach to Sri Lanka blocks Iran’s destabilizing expansion and China’s desire to dominate the Indian Ocean along with the Western Pacific, then U.S. policymakers can kill three birds with one stone. (Commentry)