NEW DELHI: Sri Lanka has flagged concerns about the “militarisation” of the `Quad’, expressing the worry that it may trigger a “cool war” in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
This apprehension has been voiced by Sri Lankan foreign secretary Jayanth Colombage, just days after India decided to invite Australia to participate in the 24th edition of the Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, thus completing the “Quad” along with the US and Japan.
Colombage, speaking during a web dialogue on ‘Deepening India-Sri Lanka Ties in the New World Order’ on Thursday, however, reiterated his government’s position that it will keep India’s strategic interests in mind in the region.
“Sri Lanka cannot and will not undermine India’s strategic interests,” he said. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, conveyed this message to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, he added.
Delivering the key-note address at the web dialogue, Colombage took note of Australia’s inclusion in Malabar to state, “We are observing the rise of the Quad as an exclusive military alliance, that is the problem.”
The foreign secretary, who is also a former Sri Lankan Navy chief, said his country would have no issues “if the Quad is aiming at the economic revival of the entire region”.
But “militarisation” is clearly problematic. “We are waiting and watching what is happening in the Quad. Do we really need a Quad? Will Quad not give rise to not a ‘Cold War’ but a ‘Cool War’ in the IOR? These are some of our concerns,” said Colombage.
While India has traditionally been against any militarisation of the Quad, the invite to Australia at a time when it is locked in a tense troop face-off with China in eastern Ladakh, reflects a clear change in policy.
Sri Lanka, straddling the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the IOR, finds itself the focus of much attention by major powers jostling for influence in the region. Colombage himself noted that the shipping lanes that Sri Lanka straddles in the Indian Ocean sees 50 per cent of the world’s container traffic, 35 per cent of bulk cargo and around 70 per cent of the world’s energy supplies movement. “We’re sitting on top of a gold mine,” he remarked.
Noting that Sri Lanka is within the sphere of major powers such as the US, China, India, Russia, Australia, EU and the UK. At the same time he made it clear that “We don’t want to be caught in power games”. Non-alignment and neutrality are Sri Lanka’s mantra, he maintained.
But the concerns of countries such as India and the US on Sri Lanka’s increasing embrace of China may not go away so easily. Colombage, on his part, sought to address Indian anxieties. “We won’t allow our territory, be it land or sea, to be a strategic threat to any country,” he asserted.
The Sri Lankan foreign secretary, however, also indicated his country’s concerns about BECA, the military foundational pact India and the US signed earlier this week, as also their bilateral Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. While noting that it would be good for the two countries and the region, he asked, “But is the objective of these two purely to counter China? That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves,” he said.