US sets up logistic hub in Sri Lanka amidst political chaos



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The US Navy first operated the air logistic hub in late August 2018, before President Sirisena and Premier Wickremasinghe clashed over the latter’s move to form Public Private Partnership (PPP) with US ally, India, to run the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo harbour. The battle over ownership of the ECT and other matters, including an alleged assassination plot to eliminate President Sirisena, led to the sacking of Wickremesinghe.


By Shamindra Ferdinando


In the midst of the simmering political turmoil, caused by the sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Oct 26, 2018 by President Maithripala Sirisena, the US Navy announced the setting up of what it called logistic hub in Sri Lanka to secure support, supplies and services at sea.


The announcement was made towards the end of the first week of December, 2018. President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, installed on October 26 twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, but the project failed due to their failure to engineer the required number of crossovers to prove a simple majority in parliament.


Interestingly, the US, having granted logistic hub status by Sri Lanka in August 2018, warned of the Hambantota port becoming a forward military base for Chinese Navy. No less a person than US Vice President Mike Pence made this assertion.


Addressing a gathering at top US think tank Hudson Institute in early Oct. 2018, Pence alleged: "Just ask Sri Lanka, which took on massive debt to let Chinese state companies build a port with questionable commercial value. Two years ago, that country could no longer afford its payments – so Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands. It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy."


Perhaps Pence hadn’t been aware of US being granted logistic hub status by Sri Lanka several weeks before.


The Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine never recovered from the defeat it suffered in parliament, on the afternoon of Nov. 14, 2018, when Speaker Karu Jayasuriya ensured the passage of a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against Premier Rajapaksa, under controversial circumstances.


On behalf of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government, UPFA MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Joint Opposition) expressed concern over the latest development in the US-Sri Lanka military relationship. Addressing the media, at Dr. N. M. Perera Centre, Cotta road, Borella, Nanayakkara flayed the ousted UNP-led administration for giving in to the US project. Mahinda Rajapaksa commented on the US-Sri Lanka project soon after giving up premiership to enable Sirisena to reappoint Wickremesinghe.


The UNP leader, surrounded by key lawmakers, was reappointed PM on Dec 16, 2018. Addressing people at his Tangalle residence, Rajapaksa, on Dec 16, 2018, warned of possible implications to Sri Lanka by giving US access to Trincomalee and getting entangled in superpower rivalry.


Did the UNP consult President Sirisena regarding the setting up of the US logistic hub in Sri Lanka? Had the issue at hand been discussed at cabinet level and also with relevant parties?


The US Navy first operated the air logistic hub in late August 2018, before President Sirisena and Premier Wickremasinghe clashed over the latter’s move to form Public Private Partnership (PPP) with US ally, India, to run the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo harbour. The battle over ownership of the ECT and other matters, including an alleged assassination plot to eliminate President Sirisena, led to the sacking of Wickremesinghe.


President Sirisena, obviously much to the embarrassment of the top UNP leadership, repeated devastating accusations in his address to the nation immediately after swearing in Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister at the Presidential Secretariat (Old Parliament).


A report from the 7th Fleet


Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Grant G. Grady, in a report headlined ‘USS John C. Stennis Leverages Logistics Hub in Sri Lanka’ posted on the 7th Fleet website on Dec 06 discussed the new US move to formulate standards for US Navy operating in the Indian Ocean.


The following is the full text of Grady’s report: INDIAN OCEAN – Taking advantage of a growing naval partnership with Sri Lanka, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) established a logistics hub in Sri Lanka to receive support, supplies and services at sea.


A C-2 Greyhound carrier on-board delivery aircraft accessed the hub’s strategic location before bringing supplies to John C. Stennis. Established on a temporary basis, in the island nation, the hub provides logistics support, to U.S. Navy ships operating in the Indian Ocean.


The temporary air logistics hub concept allows for the use of an airstrip and storage facilities to receive large-scale shipments to move out in various directions in smaller shipments, allowing ships to continue operating at sea by receiving the right material at the right place and time. The hub can also be established to provide expeditionary logistics support during humanitarian and disaster relief missions (HADR).


"The primary purpose of the operation is to provide mission-critical supplies and services to U.S. Navy ships transiting through and operating in the Indian Ocean," said Lt. Bryan Ortiz, John C. Stennis’ stock control division officer. "The secondary purpose is to demonstrate the U.S. Navy’s ability to establish a temporary logistics hub ashore where no enduring U.S. Navy logistics footprint exists."


The air logistics hub was first operated in August when USS Anchorage (LPD 23) visited Trincomalee, Sri Lanka and supported the Essex Amphibious Ready Group as it transited the western boundary of the 7th Fleet area of operations.


"The log hub is a great opportunity to leverage private industry in Sri Lanka to enhance the U.S. Navy’s operational reach," said Lt. Austin Gage, 7th Fleet Logistics Readiness Cell chief. "We are generating standard operating procedures to optimize our supply chain to be more agile and mobile and utilize strategic locations in the Indian Ocean."


Building the necessary logistical footprint requires cooperation from all sides of the operation.


"In addition to the deployed team, we have had excellent support from the fantastic professionals at the supporting agencies: Naval Supply Systems Command, Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Embassy staff; this has truly been a global effort," said Gage. "The Sri Lankan people have been incredibly hospitable hosts as we work on this shared endeavor."


John C. Stennis Sailors play a major role in expanding the logistics hub concept. Moving forward, the team hopes to set a logistical standard for U.S. Navy vessels operating in the Indian Ocean.


"The cumulative efforts of numerous stakeholders to facilitate the logistics hub in Sri Lanka will pay dividends for all future transiting units in addition to make our Navy more sustainable and a more formidable force throughout the Pacific theater," said Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Espy, Commander Task Force 70 Maintenance, Material, Logistics, Readiness representative."


US-Sri Lanka military-to-military


relations ‘update’


In spite of compelling Sri Lanka (Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration) to co-sponsor a Resolution against its own armed forces on Oct 1, 2015, the US provided crucial support to eradicate the LTTE. US intelligence output paved Sri Lanka Navy during tenure of Vice Admiral Wasantha Karanngoda to hunt down four LTTE floating arsenals on the high seas. Karannagoda, in his memoirs, ‘Adishtana’, launched on Nov 17, 2014, discussed the circumstances under which the US provided specific intelligence that led to the destruction of four LTTE vessels loaded with arms, ammunition and equipment. ‘Adishtana’ is a must read for all those interested in knowing the role played by the Navy in the conflict.


The US included Sri Lanka in its military programme at the onset of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga presidency. Over the years, Sri Lanka greatly benefited from US weapons and equipment as well as training. A range of armaments, including 30 mm Bush Master cannon as well as Trinity Marine Fast Attack Craft (FACs) strengthened the military.


In March 2007, Sri Lanka entered into Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the US. The then Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and then US Ambassador Robert Blake signed the ACSA in Colombo. Left parties at the time condemned the ACSA, both in and outside parliament. Vasudeva Nanayakkara was among those who opposed the agreement.


The agreement, valid for 10 years, is meant to facilitate transfer and exchange of logistics supplies, support and re-fueling services. Although the ACSA hadn’t been officially extended, recent announcement of US setting up of a logistic hub in Sri Lanka meant the US agenda was proceeding.


Indo-Lanka Defence Forum in its latest edition (Volume 43, Issue 02) dealt with the transformation of Sri Lanka into a global maritime hub. The article attributed to Forum Staff referred to India protesting Chinese submarine Colombo port call in 2014.


The Rajapaksa government allowed a Chinese submarine and a warship to dock at the Colombo port on Oct 31, 2014, in spite of concerns raised by India. Submarine Changzheng-2 and warship Chang Xing Dao arrived at the port on Friday, seven weeks after another Chinese submarine, a long-range deployment patrol, called at the same port.


The latest edition also included a Special Supplement that dealt with major forces locations, military exercises and engagements coming under the purview of the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) - the oldest and largest military command. Early this year, the Trump administration renamed the Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command, in a largely symbolic move to signal India’s importance to the US military in the wake of heightened tensions with China over the militarization of the South China Sea.


Both India and Sri Lanka are listed as allies in the Special Supplement. Other listed countries are Japan, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Guam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Thailand, Mongolia, Brunei, Timor-Leste, Tonga and Mongolia.


The US-led grouping is meant to counter China repeatedly accused of allegedly adopting illegitimate means to expand its influence over smaller economies. Sri Lanka has been cited as a case in point by Western powers and a section of the media. In the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at the January 2015 presidential election, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government adopted an extremely hostile approach towards China with the Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake openly critical of China. The then Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Yi Xianliang hit back hard after Karunanayake accused Beijing of charging exorbitant interests on loans provided to Sri Lanka. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government went to the extent of stopping the China-funded Colombo port city project in the wake of Rajapaksa’s defeat. The Rajapaksas were repeatedly accused of receiving Chinese assistance. The Rajapaksas never responded to one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1997-2000) Shivshankar Menon’s accusations in ‘Choices: Inside the making of India’s foreign policy.’ Menon launched his memoirs in Oct 2016. The veteran diplomat indicated that New Delhi had reason to want a change of government in Sri Lanka due to the then President Rajapaksa going back on his pledge in respect of Sri Lanka-China relations.


Menon accused Rajapaksa of breaking his solemn pledge, in May 2014, five years after the successful conclusion of the conflict. Obviously, the former President had earned the wrath of India for following a path, which New Delhi believed threatened its security interests. Menon’s assertion that Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier, parked 14 miles off the Indian coast, clearly underscored New Delhi’s serious concerns regarding Sri Lanka being too close to China.


Menon, who had been India’s National Security Advisor, from January, 2011, to May, 2014, refrained from revealing a specific incident/or incidents which revealed Sri Lanka’s duplicity in May 2014. The incumbent Ajit Doval succeeded Menon. Doval is on record as having told Gotabhaya Rajapaksa the Sri Lanka being a small country does not need big infrastructure projects. Doval had pressed Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to do away with major Chinese funded operations including flagship USD 1.4 bn Colombo Port City project.


Having commented on the conduct of former President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Menon accused Sri Lanka of reneging on bilateral understanding with India. Menon directly alleged that the former President received Chinese funds for his political campaigns, and projects. The veteran diplomat didn’t indicate when the war-winning President first received Chinese funding.


The New York Times alleged early this year that the Rajapaksa Campaign, for the January 2015 re-election bid received Chinese funding amounting to USD 7.6 mn. In addition to that the Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT) acknowledged that it made a donation of millions of rupees to a private fund linked to the Rajapaksa family. CICT made an announcement in this regard amid allegations that the Chinese funded the former President’s failed re-election bid. The CICT acknowledged it paid nearly 20 million rupees to the Pushpa Rajapaksa Foundation as part of the company’s ‘corporate social responsibility.’


Recently, Ven Dambara Amila claimed that he received Rs 95,000 monthly payment from government-owned business undertaking, Litro Gas, in terms of that company’s corporate social responsibility. Those who faulted Ven. Amila for receiving government grants in terms of so called corporate social responsibility initiative should examine all such payments, including the one received by Pushpa Rajapaksa.


Although, massive US funding for Sri Lanka at the time of the last presidential and parliamentary polls in January and August 2015, respectively, had been raised by UPFA MP Shehan Semasinghe (Joint Opposition), the National Election Commission (NEC) remained silent on the contentious issue. Sri Lanka refrained from inquiring into US funding in spite of the then American Secretary of State John Kerry revealing that USD 585 mn were spent on projects in Nigeria, Myanmar and Sri Lanka to restore democracy.


Having ‘invested’ heavily in Sri Lanka to install an administration free of Chinese influence, the US reacted angrily to President Sirisena’s Oct 26, 2018 move. The US along with its allies strongly opposed Rajapaksa’s re-appointment as Premier. A section of the Colombo-based diplomatic community openly sided with the UNP-led grouping in its battle both in and outside parliament, finally leading to the re-installation of Wickremesinghe.


Prez outburst


Although, some political parties and a section of the media, particularly those representing foreign media organizations, asserted that the political crisis had been resolved by Wickremesinghe’s reappointment, President Sirisena didn’t mince his words when he delivered the strongest criticism of the Wickremesinghe-style of governance. New Delhi, too, appeared to have misconstrued the situation. President Sirisena, in no uncertain terms expressed suspicions whether they could continue their administration due to sharp discrepancy in policies in respect of key issues. Addressing Wickremesinghe and key members of the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) at the Presidential Secretariat, immediately after Wickremesinghe’s swearing in the President lambasted the UNP over handling of the post-war accountability process. Among those present were Mangala Samaraweera (January 2015-May 2017) and Ravi Karunanayake (May 2017 to August 2017) - two UNP seniors who held foreign ministry portfolio - and Wickremesinghe himself.


President Sirisena questioned the propriety of armed forces officers having to face accountability process whereas LTTE cadres received freedom and those in prison, too, demanded their release following the end of the conflict. An irate President Sirisena suggested that the government should have sought a consensus on accountability cases involving both parties. However, President Sirisena, too, should accept responsibility for not taking up this issue before his administration finalized the Geneva Resolution in Oct 2015. President Sirisena failed the armed forces by not representing their interests even after the UK House of Commons was told in Oct 2017 that accusations pertaining to the Resolution weren’t true. In spite of President Sirisena assuring the media, at a special meeting at the President’s House, that he would take up the issue at the last UNGA, in September 2018, as well as Geneva UNHRC, the Commander-in-Chief badly let down the armed forces.


President Sirisena certainly owed an explanation as to why his government never officially requested Geneva to examine the revelations made by Lord Naseby in the House of Commons over a year ago on the basis of wartime British HC dispatches (January 1, 2009, to May, 2009). The war-winning government, too, conviniently refrained from exploiting a declaration made by US Defence Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith in June 2011 in Colombo on behalf of Sri Lanka. The most important international statement made by the top military official representing the world sole super power over two years after the conclusion of the war cleared the Army of war crimes. Unfortunately, the Rajapaksa administration NEVER made a serious effort to use the US statement to Sri Lanka’s advantage. Instead, the then government pursued a wasteful strategy that caused colossal loss to the national economy by way of massive payments to US public relations firms. The war-winning government too certainly owed an explanation why the armed forces were denied the best possible defence.


(To be continued on Dec 26)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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