A Blue Water Navy Without A Blue Water Navy

A Blue Water Navy Without A Blue Water Navy

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The government’s decision to commit the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) for patrol duties alongside the US-led ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ patrol of the Red Sea against Houthi attacks on ships belonging to what they perceive as pro-Israeli nations is something that Colombo can do without at the moment. Apart from the high costs that experts say the nation cannot afford still in the midst of the economic crisis that is yet to be behind it, it has got security and foreign policy consequences of the familiar variety but with a different set of global players.

Credit, if any, should go to the discredited former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for ‘visualising’ a Blue Water navy for the country at the successful conclusion of the LTTE war, and the even more successful role the navy played in it. At the time, he mooted the idea, experts laughed at it and also the man who made it. Gota was defence secretary at the time, and they asked that there was no anticipated adversary for Sri Lanka, either within and outside the country.

They were implying that the Indian neighbour were friends of Sri Lanka at the time, as earlier and later. That was years before Hambantota, and none of them had visualised China wading through the Sri Lankan waters and parking itself here, for their navies, the so-called research vessels and other snooping equipment, if any, being parked here. It has not justified the need for a Blue Water Navy for the country as successive governments engaged with China, supposedly on the sly, on matters affecting the security of the larger Indian neighbour, have been swearing by the day light that there was nothing secretive about the multiple engagements of the kind with China.

Continuing conundrum

President Ranil Wickremesinghe declared his intention to send out a naval vessel to the Red Sea, arguing that the ongoing strife could cause increased cargo, freight and insurance costs for the country even as it’s limping back to economic normalcy, if the present path is any indication. Yet, he sounded confused, and also confused the nation when he later sought to explain the government’s position to Arab envoys accredited to the nation.

The President said Sri Lanka needed to protect its interests in terms of vessels destined for the country, especially those carrying cargo to be offloaded for domestic consumption. His pitch was also to convince them how Colombo Port has become a transhipment port for their nations as vessels sought to bypass the Red Sea and the Houthi attacks. Already, transhipment volumes have gone up by 80 per cent, in the aftermath of the continuing conundrum in the Red Sea.

Wickremesinghe’s submission was that Sri Lanka did not have the capacity for independent operations on the Red Sea, hence had to align with a bigger power or group that was seeking to protect the Indo-Pacific sea-lanes and ensure ‘free and open seas’.  He made the point that there should/would be no Israeli involvement in such an international task-force or whatever, now going by the name ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’.

It is not known whether and if so how much his Arab guests were convinced by
Wickremesinghe’s arguments. Possibly from the Arab street-opinion, it is not about keeping Israel away but also about staying on the side of Palestinians. In this case, the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah, all are defending (?) the Palestinian cause and also reflect the Arab street opinion. 

There is the added issue if the Houthis are aware and alive to the fine-line that the President is seeking to draw, and if so whether they care for it. There is a reason. Even while explaining and defending the government’s decision in the matter, Wickremesinghe said that the SLN vessel would be operating only in the periphery and would not get into thick of things.

If that is so, the question arises, why should Sri Lanka despatch a naval vessel to the region in the first place? The explanation as the critics of the move, especially within the country, have pointed out is only to sign in as a member of the US-led coalition.

Yes, Israel is not a member of the coalition but the very idea of the international coalition minus Israel is to fight Israel’s war without Israel. The kind of coalition that the US put together for the Kuwait War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the nineties, if only to keep the Gulf-Arab nations on its side. At the time, again, though it was not its cause, Israel was asked to cool its heels.

Running with the hare…

Yes, Sri Lanka too has its Israeli connections. In the early years of the LTTE war, Israel supplied Kfir fighter-jets and trained Sri Lankan pilots, and did possibly much more. If someone drew a parallel to Sri Lanka’s so-called indebtedness to China from the days of the ‘Rice-for-Rubber Pact’ in the fifties, all the way up to the supply of fighter jets for fighting the LTTE in the nineties, there may be justification for a sentimental approach to Israel under the prevailing circumstances.

But that does not seem to be the real issue here. It is not about choosing between Israel and Palestine, or between Israel and Arabs, here. Instead, it is about signing up as a partner in the US-led coalition. Incidentally, Seychelles down south was a founding member of the coalition. There is no such clarity if the Sri Lanka Navy is going to be a formal partner of the coalition or will be an ally otherwise.

That leads to the question on how Colombo intends balancing China and the US, as it already has a problem balancing China and India, all of them on the security front, extending to China’s hidden agendas and assets of the ‘research vessel’ kind. That way, the current decision may have made SLN a Blue Water Navy without the nation not having a Blue Water Navy, as readily acknowledged by the President, who is also the Supreme Commander, without using the term.

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Political Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)



Previous Post Next Post
Disclaimer: This news appearing on Yazh News Media has been auto-published from an agency feed without any modifications to the text and has not been reviewed by an editor. For further clarification contact us on Email.