Gulf tensions help focus on SL as possible ‘logistics hub’


Gulf countries have strengthened coordination to provide oil to global markets amid increased regional tensions. (AFP)

Right now, seeing Sri Lanka as a notable arena of escalating big power rivalries in South Asia could have some substance to it. But current tensions in the Gulf help highlight the latter region as constituting the immediate flashpoint for a regional war involving the US and its perceived rivals and not so much South Asia.

Still, it would be premature to state that another Gulf War is imminent. Likewise, it would be alarmist to predict that Sri Lanka is on the brink of being drawn, in a major way, into international military tensions involving the US. However, there is no denying that Sri Lanka has converted itself into a substantive ally of the US in South Asia in view of the military cooperation measures that have been shored-up between the states over the years.

There is, for example, the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA)that provides for, among other things, conditional ‘reciprocal logistics support’ between the countries. Whatever the perceptions on this matter may be locally, it is quite some time since the US began to see Sri Lanka as an ally.

Has Sri Lanka an alternative to allowing itself to be enlisted as an ally of the US? The answer is ‘no’, considering the rather helpless state Sri Lanka has reduced itself to over the years in terms of independence of status in the South Asian region. Economically, in particular, Sri Lanka is a disempowered state and it has no choice but to relate on the most cordial terms to all the powers that matter. ‘Non-alignment’ has, whether local and international opinion like it or not, thrust itself on Sri Lanka.

The Easter Sunday atrocities have added greatly to the need for Sri Lanka to be ‘Non-aligned’. Currently, Sri Lanka is in consultation with a number of Western powers in the areas of strengthening internal security, intelligence and defence together with availing of China’s assistance in some respects. This is the way to go, considering Sri Lanka’s relative helplessness in these areas of concern and her domestic vulnerabilities coupled with present compulsions in international politics.

Conditions, internal and external, are coming together to compel Sri Lanka to take what could be argued is a pragmatic course in her foreign policy formulation and implementation and for the present ‘ideological purity’ in external relations may need to be suspended in the face of hard practicalities.

Moreover, if by Non-alignment we mean cordiality with all states, Sri Lanka could not be faulted for adopting her current foreign policy stance. However, the country could be made to answer to the fault of weakening herself steadily and complacently in numerous spheres that matter to a country. For example, better internal governance and economic management may not have reduced Sri Lanka to the current state of helplessness.

These are matters of the first importance and it is critical that the public becomes increasingly concerned about questions in foreign policy. The latter are of too great an importance to be left entirely for politicians to deliberate over; if at all such discussion ever takes place meaningfully among politicians and ruling circles.

An important dimension in Sri Lanka’s and most other small states’ powerlessness is the increasing inability of the global South, over the past three decades, to come under a unified policy umbrella to voice their collective viewpoint on issues concerning the South. This tendency has come to be epitomized by the eclipsing of NAM and other forums that had given collective voice to the issues of the South. Hopefully, the current helplessness of the South will alert these countries to the need to get together again.

Meanwhile, countries such as Sri Lanka should expect to figure in big power moves and manoeuvres in the larger international politics arena. They need to take note of the fact that the US and other big powers are in a scramble to exercise power in the Asia-Pacific region in an increasingly aggressive fashion. One proof of this is an incipient ‘tanker war’ in the Gulf.

Some tankers transporting oil to the West from Gulf states have come under attack and the US in particular has put the region on notice that it is not intending to look the other way while its oil supplies are disrupted. For instance, it has beefed up its naval presence in the Gulf and gives all indications of taking on any quarters seen as opposed to it. Any strikes on Iranian vessels could spark off a regional conflagration which could have grave security implications for the world. On the other hand, Iran has reportedly increased its presence in the Straits of Hormuz. An eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation could very well be in the making.

Added proof that the US intends to add muscle and reach to its naval presence in Southern waters in particular is its recent move to rename its Pacific Command Indo-Pacific Command. This will enable the US to extend its naval presence from the Gulf to East Africa and from thence to the west coast of the US. As it thus extends its reach and presence it will likely call on all the resources at its command, including those that could be made available to it by allies such as Sri Lanka.

While seeking to confront Iran in the Gulf militarily, the US is going all out against China in their trade war. In fact, economics are the final drivers on both these fronts. The ‘tanker war’ is all about the material fortunes of the West while the trade war has to do with the US’ intent to turn the economic tables on China or the eventual beggaring of China.

However, it does not end with the economic disabling of only China. The US-China trade war is taking a heavy toll on European businesses as well and the latter’s complaint is that they are caught-up in the cross-fire between the global heavyweights. There is no economy that is not touched by China’s fortunes.

The eventual result of this confrontation could be a drastic shrinking of the world economy with spill-over effects for the economies of the South. These grave possibilities should alert the South into thinking of a united and collective future which spells greater empowerment for its members.


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