A top U.S. military commander for Asia on Tuesday said it is necessary to sustain engagement with Sri Lanka, particularly the navy despite the political turmoil in the Indian Ocean island nation.
Expressing concern over Sri Lanka’s handover of southern Hambanthota Port to China, the Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in a verbal testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday said Sri Lanka remains a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian Ocean, and military-to-military relationship between two countries continues to strengthen.
However, he said, political turmoil and ethnic tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations remain drivers of instability and potential obstacles to continued growth in the partnership.
“Despite the political upheaval, it is in our interests to continue military collaboration and cooperation with Sri Lankan Forces,” the Commander said.
Davidson noted that in causing international concern December 2017 Sri Lanka handed over control of the newly-built Hambantota seaport to Beijing with a 99-year lease because Sri Lanka could no longer afford its debt payments to China.
USINDOPACOM cooperation with the Sri Lankan Military centers on building capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as humanitarian demining, medical assistance, and peacekeeping operations.
Increasing navy-to-navy engagement with Sri Lanka will be a USINDOPACOM focus in 2019, Davidson said acknowledging that the Sri Lankan Navy is a well-trained and professional force with the potential to contribute to multi-lateral maritime interoperability in the Indian Ocean.
According to the Indo-Pacific Commander, the recent transfer of an excess U.S. Coast Guard cutter to Sri Lanka in August 2018, along with additional platforms from Japan and India, provide the Sri Lankan Navy greater capabilities to contribute to regional maritime domain awareness initiatives.
“Going forward, it is necessary to sustain engagement with Sri Lanka, particularly the navy, and construct a multi-lateral approach to capacity building with like-minded partners to rapidly enhance the Sri Lankan Navy’s capabilities,” Head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said.