COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Professor Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and a military professor in the NATO and Pacific Commands of the U.S. Defense Department, says that the strategic Sri Lanka has always been of great importance to both the United States and China as India is worried about the currently developing situation.
The American visiting scholar is a former commander of the Army Cadets Corps of Sri Lanka and a first class honor graduate of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Professor Mendis was invited by the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University to give a lecture on “Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean and Sri Lankan Relations with China, India and the United States.”
“Sri Lanka has never been an island,” the American diplomat told the audience of over 300 military cadets. “It has always had trade and diplomatic relations that went back to ancient kingdoms in Asia and ruling empires in Europe,” Mendis told. Its strategic location in the passageway through the Indian Ocean has become increasing interest to China, India, and the United States throughout navigational and trade history, he added.
By quoting U.S. military strategist Admiral Alfred Mahan, Mendis said, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia.” The Sri Lankan born American strategist also pointed out that Chinese (Muslim) Admiral Zheng He visited Sri Lanka several times since 1405. It was almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America, the professor said.
Describing one of his recent books, Trade for Peace, Mendis says that the idea of trade and commerce connect nations. He explained that the Founding Fathers of the United States used this “enlightenment” philosophy to promote peace through trade around the world. He asked the cadets: Isn’t this the same philosophy that the economically powerful China now using in its Peaceful Rising strategy in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea?
“Each nation acts on its national self-interests,” Mendis explained. “The interplay of various national interests for their own security has become a dynamic part of ‘realpolitik’ in international relations.” This formula could easily be applied to understand the geostrategic political drama in the Indian Ocean where neighboring India is mattered significantly. The question for the post-Eelam War Sri Lanka is, Mendis asked: Does the government act on its national interests or the self-preservation?
Indian leaders in Delhi expressed concerns over Sri Lanka’s new strategic partnership with Beijing as China developed its “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean, the military professor said. Sri Lanka is the “crown jewel” on this naval planning as China is constructing the tallest Lotus Tower in Colombo that can be seen from Delhi.
When New Delhi successfully launched a long-range missile test—with freshly acquired American nuclear technology and expertise, China downplayed the importance of the recent test even though the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile could reach Beijing, Mendis explained.
Since signing the U.S.-India civil nuclear treaty, the both countries developed mutual respect and greater bilateral relations. At the same time, Delhi leaders are particularly concerned that China is using Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries to “concircle” (contain and circle) India and limit its sphere of influence, Mendis pointed out. To counterbalance the Chinese confluence in Sri Lanka, India has engaged in two primary strategic projects related to the Sethu Samudram ship canal project in the Palk Strait and the Trincomalee harbor in the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.
In the meantime, Sri Lanka and the United States signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and American Ambassador Robert Blake, Mendis said. To promote bilateral trade, the two countries have also continued its Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
Professor Mendis concluded that the “invisible attraction” of trade as a unifying force—unlike religion, ethnicity, or language—has been tested in the American Experience, and has led to unity, stability, and progress. Unlike other empires the world has seen, the United States is indeed a “philosophic empire” based on trade for mutual benefit among its 50 states and with all nations.
He argued that the American philosophic tradition—from the “Commerce Clause” in the U.S. Constitution to the American-led World Trade Organization (WTO)—is the driving force for a better world. The post-Eelam Sri Lanka needs to rethink not only its development strategies but also democratic freedoms, including the highly contested human rights issues, for a unified island, the strategist said.