Where the World Meets: the Role of Sri Lanka in Indo-Pacific Theatre

sri lanka

The island nation: Sri Lanka began to increasingly feature in discussions on the Indo- Pacific geopolitical environment in recent years, particularly in the light of Chinese led Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) and as a nation which has been occupying a strategic location astride the Indian Ocean lines of communication. Sri Lanka has been attracting the interests of major powers such as India, China and more recently, Japan and the United States of America. Naturally, this has generated speculation on whether Sri Lanka is poised to play a new role on Asia’s rapidly changing geopolitical stage. However, much of this commentary proceeds from an outside-in perspective rather than calculating the historical function and positional insights into how Sri Lanka itself looks at the evolving regional context, and how it evaluates its role therein (Waidyathilake, 2018). Many scholars including Miller has argued that the external powers recognised the strategic importance of Sri Lanka due to the decision of the government of Sri Lanka to adjoin with Chinese led BRI projects. These projects have constructed a competition among foreign forces to win the strategic position of Sri Lanka while lifting the geostrategic demand of the island nation. However, the island nation has played an essential role in Indo- Pacific theatre since the pre-colonial epoch, and the natural location of Sri Lanka has inevitably forced the island nation to play a crucial role in Indo-Pacific Ocean region while attracting external powers.

The the paper seeks to question the scholarly argument that ‘the Belt and Road The initiative has constructed the geopolitical position of Sri Lanka’ (Miller, 2017) and looks at the geopolitical behaviour of island nation throughout history based on its strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region while providing a Sri Lankan perspective on its regional role. Sri Lanka is indeed charting a new course for itself in the region through pursuing a more proactive role based on its geopolitical location and promoting the “multi-layered regionalism” (Waidyathilake, 2018). However, the paper analyses the contemporary geopolitical behaviour of Sri Lanka based on a historical evaluation of the geopolitical decision-making process of Sri Lanka.

Belt and Road Initiative: Unchangeable Geo-reality of Sri Lanka

End of the civil war in Sri Lanka booted the economic growth of the country, and massive projects and development programs have been welcomed by the government of Sri Lanka including Chinese led BRI projects. Ports and harbour development projects took the main priority of the BRI projects, and Miller pointed out that the strategic calculation and presence of Chinese BRI in Sri Lanka galvanised and upgraded Sri Lanka’s strategic position it had not acquired previously (Miller, 2017). The role of BRI has changed the geopolitical behaviour of the Indo-Pacific region: “the most extensive maritime littoral space that has the concentration of the largest population, resources, developing economies, congested sea-lanes, and contested territorial spaces and hence it significant in a geopolitical, geoeconomic and geostrategic sense” (Fatima & Jamshed, 2015, p. 78). The geopolitical importance of the Indian Ocean in the 21st century as the critical ocean lies in the trade and transit of energy resources. Widely described as the energy highways of the world, it has played a dominant role both at the economic and political levels as a strategic link between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. It accounts for the transportation of the highest tonnage of the commodities of which more than 3/4th is of extra-regional origin. With a sizeable maritime transportation system in place, energy resources are the vital strategic resources that fuel globalisation and economic growth in the Indo-Pacific littorals. So, securing energy resources and supply chains are of paramount importance as globalisation, and economic interdependence has intertwined markets and supply chains (Grace & Hao, 2018).

However, the Chinese government proposed several terrestrial and maritime routes under the BRI, including China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China- Bangladesh- India- Myanmar Economic Corridor and many ports including ports of Antwerp, Piraeus, Djibouti, Gwadar, Hambantota, Colombo Port city in Sri Lanka to gain the strategic upper hand in the Indo- Pacific region (Macaes, 2019). The question is: Has BRI constructed a geostrategic advantage over Sri Lanka as mentioned by Miller or has the Chinese government used the natural geostrategic position of Sri Lanka to win their national interests. Alfred Mahan has identified seven Ocean theatre system and according to him whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to seven seas, and the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters (Schreer, 2017). Sri Lanka is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean theatre, and it played an essential role in the old silk route system. For instance, Sri Lanka is 4 212 nautical miles from Shenzhen, 3 862 nautical miles from Suez, and close to Kenyan port and a gateway to the east and central Africa (Tonchev, 2018). As a rimland country, Sri Lanka has always carried strategic importance, and it is not constructed by either BRI or China. To validate this argument, the paper looks at the historical evolution and great power games in the Indo- Pacific theatre which are related to Sri Lanka.

World Wars and Sri Lanka

The leaders of the world wars have emphasised the strategic location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. As the Grand Admiral Raeder, the German C-in-C had amply highlighted the Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in a report to Hitler on 12th February 1942, “Once the Japanese battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines and the Japanese Air Force are based on Ceylon, Britain will be forced to resort to heavily escorted convoys if she desires to maintain communications with India and the Near East. Plans to strike westwards into the Indian Ocean and seize Ceylon had been prepared by the staff of Japanese Combined Fleet” (Somasunderam, 2003, p. 37). The commanding strategic position of Sri Lanka at the southern-most point of the mainland Asia, on the world’s highways between East and West, has drawn to its shores divergent peoples from an early time and this geo-reality has played a significant role during the interwar period. Due to trade and commerce, it lured the Greeks, the Romans and Arabs; subsequently in the modern era, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the French. While these are in outline the main streams of relations in Sri Lanka with lands overseas, closer to home, its geographical position vis-a-vis India steadily exerted a profound and enduring influence historically, socially and culturally (ibid).

Kaplan emphasised that the geographical position of Sri Lanka has played a crucial role in monsoon travels in the old silk route. He particularly highlighted that the Trincomalee harbour, one of the world’s great natural ports placed in a strategic point near the Bay of Bengal, is the most valuable midpoint in monsoon journey in the Indo- Pacific region (Kaplan, 2010). The natural harbour is situated between Jaffna and Batticaloa. In purely physical terms, the entrance to the port is four miles wide and five miles across east to west. The inner harbour (that lies in the North) covers about 12 square miles and is securely enclosed by outcrops of huge rocks and small islets. Its remarkable feature is the great depth of the inner harbour (Somasunderam, 2003, p. 37). According to old Chinese travel reports, during the period of the sailing ships, the Trincomalee harbour played a crucial role as the best harbour on India’s strategic east coast, where a fleet could be anchored and operate during the monsoon season between October and March (Singh, 2018). Mahan’s strategic calculations over Indo- Pacific theatre recognised that the powers who are willing to gain the charge over the heartland should cultivate a reliable naval power in the Indo- Pacific theatre which is identified as the gateway to the world (Schreer, 2017). In that context, the Trincomalee harbour provided excellent facilities and strategic advantages to such a fleet, and those fleets were in the strategic situation of being able to dominate the Bay of Bengal and the Eastern Sea.

The rimland and ocean power discourse of Mahan brought into the real world politics by Britain during the Second World War period by exercising the strategic advantages of geolocations of Sri Lanka to fight against Japan. The British Admiral, Horatio Nelson had recognised Trincomalee harbour as “the finest harbour in the world” (Sheehan, 1995, p. 87). Its possession had enabled the British to control more effectively their empire in India. However, when the possibility of significant conflicts arose in the Indian Ocean region or the East, Sri Lanka and the harbour of Trincomalee were given strong attention by Britain to secure the sea power supremacy of the country. For instance, in the nineteenth century, during the first Burma War and the first China War, the British navy used Trincomalee as a critical forward base. When the sailing ships gave way to steam power, the importance of Trincomalee further declined. During the period of the sailing vessels, it was the only harbour within the eastern coast of India that provided shelter during the adverse monsoon season, especially during the months the North Eastern Monsoon prevailed. In 1860, Trincomalee was once again a centre of attention due to the possibility of war breaking out. This situation caused more ships to use the Trincomalee Harbour as a strategic point of Indo-pacific theatre (Paul, 1991).

World War II has highlighted the significant utility of the geostrategic location of Sri Lanka. With the Japanese entry into the Indian Ocean, allied shipping and the sea communications with the Bay of Bengal came under attack. In this context, Winston Churchill, British wartime Prime Minister, was concerned about the potential loss of the British naval command of the strategic areas of the Bay of Bengal and Sri Lanka, which then was the base of the British Eastern Fleet. Trincomalee was the main fleet anchorage, and Churchill stressed that “nothing must be taken from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which endangers the naval base or deters the fleet from using it (Somasunderam, 2003, p. 88).” The strategic location of Sri Lanka is necessary for sea powers to secure the decisive upper hand in the Indo-Pacific region and therefore, British war cabinet in London decided the defence of Sri Lanka and its naval bases should be the highest priority and directed 16th and 17th Brigades of the 6thAustralian Division and 16th and 70th British Division to Sri Lanka. Following this decision, on the 10 March 1942, the Vice-Admiral, Sir Geoffrey Layton, who was then Commander in Chief of the Eastern Fleet, took over the command of all the forces in Sri Lanka (ibid).

The historical evaluation of geostrategic behaviour of Sri Lanka and its natural location in the Indian Ocean had attracted China to introduced its Belt and Road Initiatives while considering Sri Lanka as one pearl of Chinese maritime chain of ports in the Indian Ocean. Due to the location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, despite its size, Sri Lanka plays a significantly vital role in maritime security and safety. Another factor in terms of the strategic value of Sri Lanka is that, as the Indian Ocean is rapidly becoming one of the most critical ocean mass in global maritime trade, most of the maritime trade sea routes are around Sri Lanka. In the shipping traffic destiny maps, it can be identified that the critical arteries of the marine shipping trade run South of Sri Lanka (Bishoyi, 2016). The slightest disturbance of any of the ships which transit through Southern tip of Sri Lanka can cause a considerable impact on the international maritime trade. Moreover, in terms of protection of these routes, Sri Lanka is directly linked to the security of Sea Lines of Communication which is the primary objective of China by establishing their roots in the Indian Ocean region (Madanayake, 2017).

Sri Lanka has played an essential role in the Indo-pacific region in terms of surveillance of maritime space due to its strategic location in the The Indian Ocean. Despite the size of territorial landmass of the country, Sri Lanka has forwarded the submission to extend the Exclusive Economic Zone claims in 2009, and according to Brewster, the expected territorial sea after the delimitation will be closer to 75000 square kilometres. If Sri Lanka would achieve this, by 2025 the country will take over under its control an area of the sea which will be 24 times larger than the country’s landmass (Madanayake, 2017). The changing nature of the Indian Ocean and the new territorial claims of Sri Lanka are inevitably promoting the importance of the island nation as a critical player in ensuring the maritime security in the region.


On 12th October 1971, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike introduced a resolution to turn the Indian Ocean into a zone of peace at the 26th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution stipulated that the Indian Ocean within limits to be determined, together with the air space above and the ocean floor subjacent thereto, is hereby designated for all time as a zone of peace (Nissanka, 1984). The Sri Lankan proposal was in keeping with the sentiments of the non-aligned nations who had expressed their concern at the conference held at Lusaka in 1970 on the dangers posed by great power rivalry in the Indian Ocean.

The foreign policy decisions of Sri Lanka are shaped by the unchangeable realities of the geopolitical position of Sri Lanka, and in this context, Sri Lanka has been subjected to many foreign powers including Britain, The USA currently China. Therefore, the paper claims that the strategic advancement of the country was constructed by the natural geopolitical position of the country in the Indian Ocean region and not by the Chinese BRI. China identified the strategic importance of Sri Lanka and therefore launched the BRI projects in Sri Lanka. The second claim highlighted that the 1971 resolution of Indian Ocean Zone of Peace and the notion of multi-layered regionalism which was promoted by the Ranil Wickremesinghe government in 2015 shaped by the unchangeable geopolitical superiority of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean.

The Defence agreement enforced by Britain over Sri Lanka has given Britain the legitimate rights to exercise British military power in strategically importance ports and harbours in Sri Lanka. Due to this military presence, the island nation was subjected to a series of airstrikes which was carried out by Japan during the Second World War. Similarly, 1971 marked a considerable dynamic change in the security posture of South Asia. With Bangladesh independent movement and particularly with Chinese pressure, the government of Sri Lanka permitted Pakistan to use Sri Lankan air space to reach to East Pakistan while several naval vessels of USA navy entered the Indian Ocean region. In this context, Sri Lanka realised that the security and safety of Sri Lanka and Indo- Pacific region relied on the resolution of Indian Ocean Peace Zone and Sri Lanka wanted to take advantage of its strategic position in Indian Ocean to address its national interests and economic requirements. Therefore, the necessity of peaceful ocean theatre has been highlighted by the government of Sri Lanka to keep great powers away from the Indian Ocean region. However, the miscalculations in the foreign policy decision-making process of the government of Sri Lanka in the post-civil war period (2009-2015) exposed the country to Chinese BRI projects, and it led China to establish their power in strategically important ports and harbours in Sri Lanka.

In this context, the newly elected government of Sri Lanka proposed the idea of multi-layered regionalism to conduct the foreign relations of Sri Lanka based on its geopolitical features. This can be understood as a continuation of the 1971 resolution of Indian Ocean Peace Zone but looking at a different picture of the decision. The resolution has looked forward to seeing the Indian Ocean as a theatre which liberates from great powers. However, the principle of multi-layered regionalism has promoted a competition among foreign powers in Indo-Pacific theatre to avoid the supremacy of individual power while opening the strategically important ports and harbours for all the external forces. However, the current trends of Indo Pacific region have increased the great power competition for naval supremacy, and in this context, Sri Lanka has utilised its strategic location to attract external investments to address the national interests and economic desires of the country while transforming its role as a new commercial hub of the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, it will demonstrate that Sri Lanka is also seeking to reclaim a role it had played in the past- that of being a regional normative leader by initiating regional dialogue on freedom of navigation, and by positioning itself as a geographical information and coordination hub on non-traditional maritime threats.

What Sri Lanka sees is a region of immense economic potential with a rich resource base and strategically vital sea lanes that are currently growing faster than the global average and is poised to become a significant new growth pole of the global economy. However, the region faces challenges, its geography has vulnerabilities in the form of several strategic chokepoints, the preference of many regional states for a non-aligned foreign policy during the Cold War years has left the region without any overarching security architecture and disparities in growth have created vulnerable populations that can have a destabilizing effect on the area(Waidyathilake, 2018). According to Sham Saran, these base conditions are now leading to two major geopolitical trends: growing strategic competition between great powers, and arise in non-traditional security threats. Where strategic competition between the great powers is concerned, it has resulted in overlapping infrastructure and trade-related initiatives, leading to the multi-layered regionalism and it has also, more ominously, led to increasing naval competition (Saran, 2017).

In this condition, the government of Sri Lanka is ready to hijack the great power competition for maritime supremacy in Indo-pacific region through its strategic geopolitical location while upgrading its role as a critical player in the Indo-pacific region to counter traditional and non-traditional threats. The paper has understood the changing nature of Sri Lankan foreign policy as a continuation of 1971 and the geopolitical location of the country shapes despite the time and space. Similarly, the paper has argued that the statement: Chinese BRI has constructed strategically important geolocation for Sri Lanka cannot be accepted. Instead, it is because the island nation is naturally located in a geopolitically crucial strategic location in Indo-Pacific region and also because it has actively influenced the dynamics of Indo-Pacific theatre as a critical player all the time.

Harsha Senanayake, Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo, Sri Lanka




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