Japan - Sri Lanka Maritime Relations - A Delicate Balancing Act for Achieving Peace and Stability in the Indian Ocean Region

Regional Cooperation By Pooja Bhatt*

Regional Cooperation

India shares warm diplomatic and military relations with Japan that is visible in their commitment to bilateral and multilateral defence exercises such as Malabar, conception of inter-regional infrastructure, and connectivity projects like Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is ‘the geopolitical hotspot’ where bilateral relations are currently being shaped and reshaped. However, the contours of the current relationship will be fashioned by the ongoing regional developments, as well as the degree of convergence in their individual objectives – both which are based on their domestic as well as foreign policy pressings. The visit of Japanese Defence Minister, Itsunori Onedera, to Sri Lanka in August 2018 in this context (though it cannot be termed as unique or first time even in their bilateral accord) implies that there is a fresh impetus from the both parties to strengthen their maritime ties. The onus is on Sri Lanka to carefully maneuver its relations with Japan for larger peace and stability of the IOR while maintaining its relationship with several powers, accommodating parallel infrastructure development and security aims for the region.

Overlapping Projects in the Indian Ocean Region

The Indian Ocean Region has evolved into a striking maritime space with multitudes of issues, convergences of interests as well as clashes of geopolitical aspirations of individual states. The security threats to humans, energy, food and other crucial resources etc. loom large; nonetheless, there is still lack of larger common vision between the countries and stakeholders in the Indian Ocean to address the issues without exacerbating or fuelling any further tensions. The conundrum gets worse for the smaller economies of the region that seek investment and infrastructure building (as a road to prosperity) but have to walk a thin line when the bigger powers come expressing their interests in doing so. Several of these powers like China-Japan, China-USA, and even China-US do not sit comfortably with each other and hence are competing with each other on the projects such as building regional bilateral trade, economic endeavors, and infrastructure development. The issues mutate pensively as soon as any military or strategic angle is attached to it.

Bilateral Relations - A Zero Sum Game?

At best Sri Lanka’s attempt to invite several regional powers for investment and development of facilities such as ports, equipment, and training for its naval forces and Coast Guards cannot and should not be seen as a zero-sum game by onlookers. As on date, several countries are eyeing for intra-regional connectivity and infrastructure development projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that expands from Western Pacific Ocean to Eastern Indian Ocean. Similarly, Japan and the US show their interests in the larger normative framework of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ along with India and Australia. However, Chinese scholars view this as a military alliance to counter the BRIi. The two frameworks overlap geographically in the IOR. In other words, what Colombo sees as a window of growth has actually become a geopolitical chess between several countries and source of tension within the region.

Tokyo’s Maritime Approach to Indian Ocean

Japan’s interest in the Indian Ocean is owing to the country’s dependence on accessing energy resources of the West Asian countries through the sea lanes. Ensuring energy security requires maritime awareness of these lanes and the capability to address challenges that exist there, say for example piracy. China’s aggressive yet obscure maritime position vis-à-vis its statements and behaviour in the East and South China Sea, coupled with military activities as far as in Indian Ocean and Djibouti, has forced Japan into revisingii its maritime strategies and building partnerships.

Japan’s relationship with Sri Lanka can be dated back to when Colombo helped Tokyo in the latter’s assimilation with the international community, post its First World War debacle, and after calling for Treaty of San Francisco in 1952. But the maritime engagement between the two was lacking due to Japan’s own pacific military doctrine and the US’ umbrella protection. This, however, changed with a realisation that the East-West shipping lane serving Japan lies only 12 nautical miles from the island country, as well as the presence of several strategically located deep water ports like Trincomalee and Hambantota in the Indian Ocean. With an acknowledgment of growing Chinese maritime influence in East and South China Seas and reducing American involvement in the region, Japan underwent foreign and security policy reforms after December 2013.

In 2014, Japan gradually elevated their long-standing friendship to strategic partnership with Sri Lanka. The maritime cooperationiii can be seen as twofold — firstly providing assistance for capacity building in the maritime safety for enforcing maritime law, mitigating disasters risks, conducting Search and Rescue operations, providing grant-in-aid for patrol vessels, and so on. On the other hand, the two countries initiated close cooperation and exchanges between the navies and the coast guardsiv by regular port calls as a means to enhancing maritime security. The two countries engage in training and bilateral as well multilateral exercises for the skill development of Sri Lankan Navy and Coast Guards.

Sri Lanka’s Dilemma

The maritime relationship between Japan and Sri Lanka has fructified due to complementarities in interests. The mutual beneficial relation, however, has some moot points for Sri Lanka. As the island nation is dependent on its maritime assets for its development, the same benefits come with riders. The leasing out of its Hambantota port to China for 99 years due to inability to repay the Chinese loan is now dissuading the country from putting all the eggs in one basket. It is now diversifying its bilateral relations as well as economy by inviting more countries to develop its ports and maritime infrastructure. Japan’s interest in the east-coast situated, deep-water Trincomalee port is one such example.

Colombo’s relationship with New Delhi is still cold despite their 30 nautical miles distance. The itchy subjects between India and Sri Lanka such as fishermen’s dispute, maritime boundary delimitation and more importantly, the ethnic Tamil-Sinhalese issue in Sri Lanka has driven the island country into China’s arms. It is also Indian foreign policy indiscretion that allowed its neighbours to trust and seek diplomatic and financial support from countries like China over the past few decades. With India’s renewed emphasis on engaging with its Eastern neighbours (Act East policy) and through the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), the focus is back to the IOR. This provides both India and Sri Lanka to seek avenues of maritime engagements within the existing frameworks of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), to which both are members. Like Japan, India too, is wary of Chinese military indiscretions in the Indian Ocean. Conversely, India shares warm diplomatic and military relations with Japan that is visible in their commitment to bilateralv and multilateral defence exercises such as Malabar, conception of inter-regional infrastructure, and connectivity projects like Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. Therefore, managing maritime relations with India, Japan, and China will be walking a tightrope for Sri Lanka.

Future Trends in Maritime Diplomacy

As a stakeholder in Indian Ocean affairs, Sri Lanka has taken a zealous role in the regional platform. The countryvi seeks to build multilateral and multi-stakeholder platforms to promote stronger maritime engagements in an inclusive and rules-based mechanism between Indian Ocean powers to increase dividends from economic, political, and security relations. These ambitions align perfectly with Japan’s own vision to secure the Indian Ocean leg of the sea lanes of communication under FOIP. Though India does not have a nuanced Indo-Pacific strategy, its vision for peaceful and prosperous Indian Ocean is crystal clear. As Sri Lanka seeks its role in the Indian Ocean policy shaping, it has to maneuver all these regional aspirations while managing its domestic vision of maritime safety and security.

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