Japan seeks balance with China in seas around Sri Lanka

Japan and Sri Lanka are celebrating 65 years of diplomatic relations this year, but their bilateral ties have rarely seemed more important — especially in relation to maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

The two countries launched a dialogue on maritime security and other oceanic issues in January, following a 1.83 billion yen ($16.3 million) aid package from Japan in June 2016 designed to boost Sri Lanka’s maritime security and crime-fighting capacity.

The Japanese embassy in Colombo said the dialogue was aimed at ensuring that the Indian Ocean remains open, stable and governed by the rule of law. “The dialogue has become a wonderful step for developing such cooperation,” the embassy told the Nikkei Asian Review.

But analysts say that Japanese strategy in the region is also spurred by worries about the expansive reach of China, which has become increasingly belligerent in maritime affairs. Abhijit Singh, head of maritime policy at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said Tokyo is “certainly” concerned about Beijing’s growing investment in Sri Lanka and its influence over the government in Colombo.

“The last thing Japan would like to see is a Chinese vassal state in the eastern Indian Ocean — and that, too, so close to the critical sea-lanes,” Singh said. “It is gradually beginning to take greater interest in hard military security as well, [although] the military aid is presently rudimentary and not on a scale meant to attract undue attention.”

For Sri Lanka, foreign assistance is welcome. Defense Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi said the island state’s surrounding seas are 27 times larger than the country itself, so it needs whatever aid it can get to police the area. “We require international support from countries such as Japan to secure and strengthen our maritime boundary, as well as strengthen our capabilities in search and rescue,” he said in an interview.

People trafficking and drug smuggling are major problems for Sri Lanka, with many undocumented migrants traveling illegally by sea from the island to destination countries such as Australia. Since 2009, Sri Lankan police and the Australian authorities have intercepted 89 vessels transporting more than 4,500 migrants without visas, according to the Sri Lanka police.

Narcotics are also smuggled from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Latin America. In March 2016, drug dealers used fishing trawlers to transport a 101kg consignment of drugs into the country. Later in the year, purported “sugar” containers were seized with huge loads of cocaine from Brazil, according to the Police Narcotics Bureau.

Biggest donor

Apart from marine security, Japan has also been involved in socioeconomic projects in Sri Lanka, including infrastructure improvements and providing access to electricity and clean water. From 2013 to 2015, Japan granted a total of $143.5 million to Colombo for development-related projects. But China remains the biggest donor to Sri Lanka by far.

From 2005 to 2015, China provided $15 billion in official development assistance and foreign direct investment. Beijing also played a major role in providing military equipment to help Colombo fight the militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, bringing a quarter-century war to an end in 2009 with the killing of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

After building a new port, airport and convention center in the city of Hambantota, China is now constructing the $1.4 billion Colombo International Financial City project, the largest foreign-funded investment in Sri Lanka. The offshore project is being built in an area larger than Monaco, and aims to attract more than $13 billion in FDI.

By comparison, $338.4 million in loans promised by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena visited Nagoya in 2015 is relatively small. The loans are expected to help finance the construction of transmission lines and water facilities in the North Central and Eastern provinces.

However, analysts say that a close relationship with Sri Lanka is essential to Japan. R. Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist who also served as the head of intelligence for an Indian peace-keeping force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990, said the country’s strategic location makes it an important element in Tokyo’s efforts to protect maritime communication routes.

“There is an increasing Chinese angle to Sri Lanka-Japan relations, and the maritime security and cooperation [element] has also become an important component of this relationship. Colombo is becoming a frequent destination for the goodwill visits of Japanese self-defense forces and this is also likely to grow in the coming years,” Hariharan said.

Since 2009, more than 55 port calls in Colombo have been made by Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and Japan Coast Guard ships.

The Japanese embassy said the Sri Lanka Coast Guard does not have sufficient patrol boats capable of open sea navigation. Those that do exist are deployed off the island’s northern coasts, leaving southern and western regions exposed. Japan’s 2016 aid package included two patrol vessels and financing for the construction of other vessels and training for coast guard crews.

“These measures are expected to contribute to an improved capacity to provide prompt and appropriate marine rescues, prevent smuggling and other marine crimes, and to respond to oil spills from ships,” the embassy said.

China is likely to remain Sri Lanka’s principal donor, however. Rohan Samarajiva, founding chair of LIRNEasia, a Colombo-based Asian infrastructure policy and regulation think tank, said Colombo would take opportunities offered by China as part of its Belt and Road Initiative to consolidate its trading relationships and channels.

“It is important for Sri Lanka to position itself to benefit from Chinese investments and loans, while balancing its traditional good relations with India and Japan,” he said. “If Sri Lanka does not welcome Chinese investments, they will flow to other locations.”

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