The largest warship of Japan, Izumo, expected to call at a port in Sri Lanka during the summer of 2017[i]. The visit marks the first occasion for Japan to dispatch such a huge helicopter carrier to another country, although Japan has four large helicopter carriers. Actually, the plan demonstrates Japanese understanding of Sri Lanka’s importance in world affairs. Indeed, Japan can be the best partner for Sri Lanka for three reasons.
First, if Japan is chosen as a partner by Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka can escape the dilemma it now faces with China. Sri Lanka has an important location safeguarding sea lines of communications in the Indian Ocean. For that reason, China has been very active in the immediate area. In fact, China is building ports in Colombo and Hanbantota. Coming along with economic support, Chinese submarines have visited Sri Lanka. If China supports Sri Lankan development, then little motivation exists for Sri Lanka to refuse economic support from China. Nevertheless, from an Indian perspective, Chinese activities in Sri Lanka represent an encirclement strategy that ultimately limits India’s influence in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, China has difficulties with other countries including Japan, the US, and Southeast Asian countries. Although receiving China’s support is economically beneficial for Sri Lanka, receiving such support has led to looming strategic difficulties. Ultimately, overdependence on China will not be beneficial for Sri Lanka, which needs other partners to maintain a balance of relations and interests. Fortunately, Japan has been a stable supporter of Sri Lanka for years. Therefore, Japan is an excellent choice for alliance with Sri Lanka.
Secondly, Sri Lankan co-operation with Japan presents few risks. For foreign policies of Sri Lanka, some concerns exist. Especially, relations with India are sensitive. India is the most important partner for Sri Lanka, but sometimes, because of the ethnic Tamil (Sri Lanka) – Tamil (India) connection, Sri Lankan concerns persist about Indian intervention in domestic ethnic issues in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, in 1987, the possibility of US use of Sri Lanka for naval bases was one reason for the dispatch of Indian Peace Keeping Forces to Sri Lanka[ii]. For that reason, other partners have been sought by Sri Lanka. Apparently, this was one reason Sri Lanka chose co-operation with China. However, if China were not to respect India’s will, China would not be the best choice. Given those circumstances, Japan stands as the best alternative. Japan has been a strong supporter of India’s rise. In 2007, when Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited India, his speech to the Indian parliament included the phrase: “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India[iii].” Japan has promoted maritime security co-operation with India over the last decade. Actually, Japan and India have held joint exercises such as the Japan–India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) and Japan–India–US Malabar Exercises. Japan invited India to the East Asia Summit. Japan has also participated in Indian initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. When Japan co-operates with Sri Lanka, Japan can be expected and trusted to respect India’s will. From the perspective of Sri Lanka – India relations as well, Japan stands as the best candidate for partnership with Sri Lanka.
Thirdly, Japan – Sri Lanka co-operation presents great potential for the eventual expansion of relations. Although Japan has been a stable supporter of Sri Lanka for years, little defence co-operation exists. The “Sri Lanka – Japan Dialogue on Maritime Security, Safety and Oceanic Issues in January 2016 in Colombo” and the Project for Maritime Safety Capability Improvement (worth approximately 1.8 billion yen), which includes the provision of two patrol vessels [iv]” are just beginning. Therefore, great space beckons for expansion of Japanese and Sri Lankan defence co-operation. Arms trade is among the best examples because arms trade can reinforce long-term relations through training and maintenance. Not only patrol boats, but also patrol planes (P-3C), radars, and sensors to track events in the Indian Ocean are obvious systems of mutual interest. Furthermore, if Sri Lanka operates Japan’s P-3C patrol planes, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, and US would be using similar equipment for patrol planes. Therefore, the equipment will present other opportunities for Japan – Sri Lanka – India–US co-operation in using and upgrading the equipment, and for sharing information collected by the patrol planes. The possibility exists that Japan–India–US can collaborate to establish a maritime communication network system in Sri Lanka that would serve the entire Indian Ocean. It would be easy for the four countries to remain abreast of events in the Indian Ocean. A large space exists to accommodate expansion of long-term defence relations. As a result, Japan – Sri Lanka defence co-operation offers great potential on many dimensions. It will be useful to establish Japan – Sri Lanka – India strategic trilateral dialogue as the first step. Through such dialogue, both Japan and India can share information, better identify Sri Lankan needs, and choose courses of co-operation or support. Now is the time to begin.
The Author is a Senior Fellow, Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka. This article does not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka
[i] T Kelly and N Kubo, “Exclusive: Japan plans to send largest warship to South China Sea, sources say” (Reuters, 14 March 2017) http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-navy-southchinasea-exclusive-idUSKBN16K0UP (accessed on 25 March 2017).
[ii] PA Ghosh, Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Role of Indian Peace Keeping Force (I.P.K.F.) (A.P.H. Publishing Corporation, 1999)
[iii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Confluence of the Two Seas: Speech by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India”, 22 August 2007. http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html (accessed on 25 March 2017).
[iv] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Japan, Media Statement Japan Sri Lanka Summit Meeting, 28 May 2016 Web Source: http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/files/000160708.pdf (accessed on 25 March 2017).