Sri Lanka and Japan Gearing Towards a New Era of Relations
Tokyo's Kaga helicopter carrier visited Colombo port in 2018. (Photo: Reuters)
By Chulanee Attanayake and Roshni Kapur

Sri Lanka and Japan Gearing Towards a New Era of Relations

Jul. 16, 2019  |     |  0 comments

On June 12, 2019, Japan’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshiko Abe met Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during her visit to Sri Lanka to further strengthen defense relations, especially in areas of counter terrorism and regional security cooperation. They also held discussions on negotiating a defense agreement.


Abe’s visit marked a continuation of growing maritime relations between Colombo and Tokyo. In 2018, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena paid a state visit to Tokyo to support the latter’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy in the Asia Pacific. This was reciprocated by the first ever visit of Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to Sri Lanka later in the year, where he held field visits to Hambantota and Trincomalee ports. Japan also donated two coast guard patrol ships to the Sri Lankan navy. Subsequently Tokyo’s biggest warship, the Kaga helicopter carrier, arrived at Colombo port as part of a goodwill visit. These developments indicate a clear strategy of strengthening cooperation in security affairs.  


Japan’s pivot to the Indian Ocean is not a new phenomenon. Its interest in the Indian Ocean region was reflected through its participation either as a member or dialogue partner of regional forums such as Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean MOU (IOMOU) on Port State Control. There now seems to be a shift from dispersed and sporadic engagement to a more coherent approach under the Indo-Pacific framework. These developments demonstrate Japan’s willingness and enthusiasm to increase its regional presence in order to deal with the perceived challenges in the Indian Ocean region.


Japan has been reaching out to Colombo due to the latter’s strategic positioning along the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). Over 60,000 ships that carry half of the world’s cargo pass through the SLOCs that are close to the Sri Lankan coast. The first sign of interest was indicated during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Colombo in 2014, the first such visit of a Japanese leader to Sri Lanka in 24 years. Japan sees it as a pragmatic move in strengthening maritime partnership with Sri Lanka, given that it heavily depends on these sea lanes for its energy imports.


Sri Lanka, in turn, has a vested interest in greater maritime cooperation with Japan to elevate its maritime profile. Historically, the Indian Ocean region was an inclusive part of Sri Lanka’s strategic, political and security narratives. However, its consciousness declined when it took an inward approach which gave greater prominence to its South Asian identity and its own imagination moved closer towards the Indian hinterland. Since the end of the civil war, Colombo has begun to look beyond its South Asian identity and enhance its Indian Ocean identity. It started with Sri Lanka’s then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera statement in 2015 where he said: “Reclaiming our Indian Ocean identity helps us and others unlock the tremendous opportunities for attracting FDI, accessing markets and developing our tourism industry.”


Sri Lanka’s leadership has indeed played a key role in crafting policy decisions for the ocean to take centre stage for greater economic development. For instance, the government adopted a policy to make Sri Lanka an air and naval hub in the Indian Ocean. This has been demonstrated through the hosting of the Indian Ocean Conference and Galle Dialogue, which Japan has actively been a part of. Essentially, Sri Lanka is using soft diplomacy to show that small states regardless of their size can gain significance in the maritime space. It aspires to build a maritime economy through transshipment and logistics.


The evolving maritime partnership between Tokyo and Colombo are a product of both domestic and international developments. The growing attention towards traditional security reflects the growing bilateral and multilateral engagements in an increasingly contested and tense Indian Ocean region. There are extensive risks involved in the Indian Ocean ranging from traditional to the non-traditional. These include intra-state conflict, terrorism, transnational crimes, illicit fishing, natural disasters, climate change and rising sea levels. The security of the region that was hardly discussed 25 years ago is widely being deliberated today.

While Sri Lanka wants to position itself as a key maritime player, Japan wants to expand its strategic footprint along with its security allies.

Japan is a close ally of the US and is a part of a number of security groupings including the Quad alliance with the US, India and Australia. Some analysts such as Dhruva Jaishankar have termed the Quad a “matrix of trilateral and bilateral relationships” instead of a bloc or an alliance. Military engagements involving the four countries have broken new ground.


Historically, the US has dominated the Indian Ocean and this arrangement exists till today. The US wants to ensure that its oil supplies from the Middle East are well protected. The Quad, led by the US, has regularly conducted maritime drills in the Indian Ocean that is moving towards a multipolar future. They have held the RIMPAC series, the world’s biggest maritime engagement designed to increase tactical competence and cooperation of the participating countries in varying areas of maritime operations. China was disinvited from the 2018 edition. The US, Japan and India have also conducted the Malabar exercises since 2015. Japan’s increased security partnership with Colombo should also be seen in this background.


Australia is stepping up its engagement with Colombo as well. In March 2019, the Australian military had its biggest defense engagement with Sri Lanka during the Indo Pacific Endeavor (IPE) 2019 Exercises. This was the first time where the Joint Task Force included the Royal Australian Army, Navy and Air Force aircraft. The Sri Lankan and Australian navies engaged in helicopter exchanges, nautical maneuvers disaster and humanitarian relief operations. The exercises were aimed to boost Australia’s interoperability and coordination of humanitarian and security responses with littoral states.  


Another reason for the Quad’s increased activity in the Indian Ocean is to counter China’s growing presence. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has yielded mixed feelings, especially about the increasing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean. Almost all South Asian states have either joined or endorsed the BRI. Some signature projects in South Asia include the Hambantota port and Colombo International Container Terminal of Colombo port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar port in Pakistan. The US and its allies are highly apprehensive about the arrangements of some of these Chinese-led and Chinese-funded projects. They are with the view that China has broader strategic interests in mind.


The Quad is also exploring ways to further develop infrastructure in the region. Japanese infrastructure investments in the Indian Ocean are on a par with China’s BRI, sometimes even better. Tokyo claims that its projects are qualitatively different from Chinese-led and Chinese-funded initiatives with an emphasis on inclusivity, transparency and upholding the rules-based order. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the key development partner in Colombo since 2003, continues to play a big role in regional development projects in Sri Lanka.

These new developments reflect the expansion of maritime relations across the Indo-Pacific. Japan could use the Indo-Pacific concept as the foundation for its growing maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka wants to position itself as a key maritime player, Japan wants to expand its strategic footprint along with its security allies. Both countries wish to promote stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean. Great power rivalry primarily between India and China is likely to be played out in the Indian Ocean.


Strategic cooperation among the Quad countries is also strengthening through increasing dialogues, military exercises, coordinated activities and new agreements. These could be a product of increasingly common perceptions, habits of cooperation and greater comfort levels. There is a greater presence of other middle powers such as France, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates in the Indian Ocean. Indonesia, already the region’s second biggest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, is giving greater attention to the region. New maritime exercises, high-level engagements and port visits are likely to take place in the second half of this year.



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