Sri Lanka’s geopolitical importance to the United States

An analysis of Nisha Biswal’s visit to island nation

During late January and early February 2015, Sri Lanka witnessed the visits of many foreign officials to the country. Prominently featured among them were the visits of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State, Hugo Swire, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Biswal and the Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Kamalesh Sharma. What is significant about these visits is that all three occurred within a matter of a few days and are the first visits by foreign officials since the presidential elections were held on January 8th this year.

Of the three visits mentioned above, it is perhaps noteworthy to further look at the two day tour undertaken by Assistant Secretary Biswal. Her visit – the second to the island nation after her previous visit in February 2014 – is the first by a Senior State Department Official since the presidential elections. Therefore it can be considered an important event in this year’s calendar especially due to the nature of relations between the two countries over the past few years.

South Asia’s strategic location and its geopolitical importance

Since time immemorial, the Indian Ocean has been an important location in the strategic calculations of the great powers of the world, primarily due to the economic impact of the Indian Ocean in the east-west maritime trade.

At the turn of the new millennium, South Asia emerged as a region of tremendous international concern. As Zia-ur-Rehman Hashimi noted, “the region is historically well known for its great strategic salience and enormous market potential.” For this reason it is ascertainable that this region has always played a significant role in the politics of international relations.

Geopolitics, the study of the relationship between geography and politics, too plays an important role in the South Asian region. Highlighting the significance between these two and the role the former can play in the latter demonstrates the concept of geopolitics has an important role to play in both the economy and policy of a country, thus having the option to determine the path taken in terms of these categories. Further defined as the “art and practice of using political power over a given territory”, the usage of the conventional term which is primarily applied to explain the impact of geography on politics has evolved over the past century to encompass a wider connotation.

It is important to note that the various dimensions of geopolitics coalesce around the significance of the placement of states in the world map. Due to this reason, it can be understood that the South Asian region’s strategic geographical location is of utmost importance in terms of defining the nature of the policies that are to be implemented by the South Asian states as well as those adopted by the external states towards the former.

According to R. W. McColl, “politics tak[es] place in regard to geographical circumstances, territorial relations and aspirations of political entities. It derives from the special setting of place as well as territoriality.” This helps identify that the territorial space or the positioning of a certain territory determines the relationships states maintain. Therefore South Asia’s central positioning in the world map makes it a vital geopolitical position. The geography of a certain area can have political connotations as well as political interest. McColl states that geopolitics can be further identified as “an approach to international politics that insists on the significance of geographic territory and its resources. It represents the study of the geographic distribution of power among the states of the international system, paying particular attention to the rivalries of the major powers.”

Biswal-TNA-EditMainly due to its position, South Asia as a region plays a vital role in the world because it is strategically located on ground, sea, air and space. According to Devendra Kaushik, over the years as the space race was becoming critical “the Indian Ocean has acquired a new strategic significance in view of the current heavy reliance on satellites for electronic surveillance, photo reconnaissance and intelligence gathering vital for both conventional and nuclear warfare.” Due to its central geographical location, South Asia is an important region for space work as well.

Geopolitics is an expression of the foreign policies of states, where those policies are determined by the state’s location, natural resources and physical determinants, re-emphasises South Asia’s importance as a region that is abundant with natural resources such as water and forests, physical determinants such as many strategic harbours both natural and manmade, such as Trincomalee, a seaport that played a major role in the maritime and international trading in the history of Sri Lanka, Gwadar, a port city in Pakistan which is strategically located at the apex of the Arabian Sea and at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, Chittagong, located in south eastern Bangladesh is its busiest seaport, and Kyaukpyu, located on the north western corner of the Yanbye Island is a town situated on a superb natural harbour which connects the rice trade between Culcutta and Yangon, Myanmar. This shows that geopolitics is an important concept that is closely related to the foreign policies of countries.

A foreign policy which can be interpreted as the procedure of explaining the behaviour of a state according to the situations in the international arena depicts how a country will act with respect to the other countries on a political, social, economical and military level. How a state acts in terms of other countries and its guidelines for interacting with them can be understood when analysing a country’s plan in terms of the international system.

The U.S. foreign policy in South Asia

In this context, understanding the United State’s Foreign Policy towards South Asia is important. When preparing the foreign policy of the United States, special consideration is given to the State Department’s construction of the geo-strategic worlds into regional bureaus as they mark the significance of regions. It is formulated as per regions, taking in to consideration the regional dynamics and their interests there.

Though initially the South Asian region was hardly given any consideration when the U.S. foreign policy was formulated, this sentiment has been changing over the past forty years or so, as several incidents in the region have featured prominently in the State Department. Since the early 1990s South Asia was deemed extremely useful to the United States and the creation of a separate division, focusing primarily on matters pertaining to the region has helped promote intra-regional coordination and understanding. According to Hashimi, the current American relations with South Asia are “focuse[d] on the major current strategic objectives of America in the increasingly volatile region of South Asia.” It is understood that South Asia is obviously an area of special significance due to the growing encounter between the West and Asia. It is ascertained that the South Asian region has become an extremely important component of the United States foreign policy, due to the importance the Indian Ocean has come to play in world politics.

South Asia is also deemed important due to the high-level of terrorist activities in the region and more so because both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons and the U.S. perceives this as a threat to their national security. As a result, the U.S. has been heavily involved in the region, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan to reduce the threat this region poses on her domestic security concerns. It is evident that one of the key reasons as to why the United States is involved in this region is due to their national interests.

For the United States, the South Asian region is not only of political interests, but also of economic interests due to the wealth of mineral and natural wealth which these countries control along with its strategic importance. The new U.S. foreign policy towards the region is titled the ‘New Silk Road’ which was crafted to reap economic benefits from the region. This vision is a four-pronged strategy to bolster regional connectivity as part of the New Silk Road. These four are creating regional energy markets that link Central Asia with South Asia; boosting transportation routes and investing in critical infrastructure; improving customs and borders; and linking businesses and people.

Understanding Biswal’s visit to Sri Lanka

The new Sri Lankan government led by President Maithripala Sirisena have expressed their need to revive ties with both India and the United States. And this change has induced newfound interest in Sri Lanka by the United States as the former is positioning itself away from the previous government’s inclinations towards China.

Even though during her visit, Biswal stated “rebuilding the economy, preventing corruption and advancing good governance, ensuring human rights and democratic participation for all citizens” is the United States’ primary concern, it is felt that they are indeed only keen on achieving a few of these intentions. As much as the U.S. positions itself as a protector of human rights and urges post-war reconciliation and accountability issues in Colombo, it can be identified that the real reason behind Biswal’s journey – albeit expected – were to re-establish economic ties between the two countries. Having been threatened by the increasing Chinese involvement and presence in the region, the U.S. has identified this recent change in Sri Lanka as a method of re-establishing its ties with the island nation and thereby reaping the maximum benefit from the region. This is visible from Biswal’s statement in Colombo when she said the U.S. looks forward to “growing and deepening our partnership, to advancing trade and investment, and to expanding the bonds between our people, our governments, and our civil societies and our businesses.” Economic relations between the two countries have been strong with the United States providing more than two billion U.S. dollars in assistance to Sri Lanka since the latter’s independence 67 years ago. And it is also the largest single importer of Sri Lankan goods amounting to approximately 2,436.7 million U.S. dollars. Biswal’s visit to Sri Lanka can thus be identified as a mechanism to realize one of their four-pronged strategies of the New Silk Road, i.e. to link businesses and people.

Another way to look at Biswal’s two day tour of Colombo is to look at the infrastructure development and projects that were taking place in the country over the past decade. During the Rajapaksa era, all if not most of the infrastructure projects were channelled through Chinese funding and their companies. As a country which has huge interests in Sri Lanka and the South Asian region as a whole, the United States has found the change of government in Sri Lanka a relief as it will now be able to re-enter the country via its funding for the latter’s physical development. Therefore it can be asserted that Biswal’s sudden visit to Sri Lanka was to reinstate itself as a friend and a possible donor country to help Sri Lanka achieve its development goals, thus making use of its soft diplomatic powers. Assisting Sri Lanka in developing its infrastructure network which includes roads, bridges, electrical transmission grids, railways and pipelines to connect energy, goods, services and people permits convenient access to the country for the Americans and an ally in the strategic region. This strategic move by Biswal allows the U.S. to achieve another of its strategies from the New Silk Road vision, that of boosting transportation routes and investing in critical infrastructure.

Over the years the military relationship between the two countries has dwindled and is now almost non-existent. Earlier in 2014, Biswal expressed the U.S. Government’s interest in the “resumption of a more comprehensive military relationship” with the Government of Sri Lanka. As much as the Sri Lankan forces have been gaining knowledge and experience by being exposed to training programmes in the U.S., it has now come to a point where the latter are able to learn about guerrilla warfare from the Sri Lankan forces. Even though a lot has been said about the war, its latter stages and its aftermaths, it must be understood that the Sri Lankan army were indeed able to destroy a well organised and intelligent terrorist group, which had the ability to terrorise not just Sri Lanka, but several countries around the world. Therefore, similar to the United States educating other national forces on intelligence gathering, fighting techniques etc, it is now able to gather knowledge and know-how on fighting guerrilla terrorist groups from the Sri Lankans.

As Biswal visited the United Kingdom to meet her counterparts there, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Susan Rice updated their national security strategy stating it will help countries in transition, such as Sri Lanka. This leap of faith is advantageous for Sri Lanka as it can see whether the U.S. will indeed stand alongside Sri Lanka as Biswal stated “Sri Lanka can count on the United States to be a partner and a friend on the way forward” at the upcoming March sessions of the UN Human Rights Council or whether the super power will only be interested in building the business ties between the two countries and increasing the investment opportunities for themselves in this strategically located island nation.

Bhagya Senaratne holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from the University of Colombo. Her areas of interest are the South Asian region and its geopolitics. She has previously worked in several government ministries including the Ministry of External Affairs.