The Sunday Times 12 May 2013
From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Michelle Sison, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, recently went on record on ‘Twitter’ to say that the US had no plans for establishing a military base in the Maldives. This was in response to a question from a journalist from the Maldivian news website, ‘Haveeru online,’ relating to the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA) currently being negotiated between the US and the Maldives.
Sison said that a SOFA “sets the legal framework for US personnel to support activities in a given country” and that the US has such agreements with more than 100 countries, adding “No plans for US base in Maldives.”
Meanwhile US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake has revealed in an interview with the Press Trust of India that the US has been consulting India on the SOFA with the Maldives. He told the PTI the US does not have “any plans to have a military presence in Maldives,” describing the agreement as “an effort to provide a framework to the ongoing joint military exercises that the US has with Maldives.”
Concerns have been reflected in Maldivian, Indian and Sri Lankan media after a leaked draft of the agreement was posted on ‘DhivehiSitee.com’ website, titled “Agreement between the United States of America and the Republic of Maldives regarding Status of Forces and Access to and Use of Facilities in the Maldives.” Implicit in some of the reports is a degree of anxiety that while the document has no explicit reference to a military base, some of its clauses seem to suggest the US is preparing the ground for a possible situation in the future where it may want a more pronounced military presence in the region, going beyond the requirements of ‘joint military exercises.’ A report by Chinese news service ‘Xinhua’ was headlined “Maldives could allow increased US military presence.”
Presidential elections are expected to be held in the Maldives this September. Ousted Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed is reportedly campaigning against the agreement.
According to the eight-page leaked document the agreement will give US forces access to and use of air ports, sea ports and “Agreed Facilities and Areas,” which the US may use for bunkering of ships, refuelling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities and for “such other purposes as the Parties may agree.”
It authorises US forces personnel and US contractors to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements, and to control entry to “Agreed Facilities and Areas” that have been provided, free of charge, for exclusive use by the US forces. The US shall be allowed to operate its own telecommunication systems and enjoy ‘the right to use all necessary radio spectrum for this purpose.”
The document includes a broad waiver of claims (other than contractual claims) for damages and losses, including injury or death to personnel of either party’s armed forces or civilians. Third party claims for damages or loss caused by US personnel shall be resolved in accordance with US law. Another clause says that disputes shall not be referred to any national or international court, tribunal or similar body or to any third party for settlement, unless otherwise mutually agreed. “All disputes shall be resolved exclusively through consultation between the Parties.”
Spokesman for the US embassy in Colombo Chris Elms when contacted by ‘Sunday Times’ could not verify the authenticity of the leaked document but only confirmed that the US has begun discussions on a SOFA with the government of the Maldives.
Dr. Harinda Vidanage, Assistant Professor of International Politics at St. Lawrence University, NY, and former Director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) commenting on the implications of the US-Maldives SOFA observed that at a time when the US, Indian and Chinese navies are deploying more and more assets in the Indian Ocean, it will see a significant militarisation of the ocean system.
“This will have no direct security implications in the short term apart from the concern that if the state decides to make alliances or take sides” he said in an email interview.
He said the political significance for Sri Lanka depends on its capability to handle the very apparent tensions between India and China and increasing American presence. “The most pragmatic approach would be to accept the fact that there is significant rivalry around our oceans and not be carried away by being a satellite of any of these great powers.”
“There is significant concern among US policy makers about China’s network of increasing ports and development projects which they see as China’s “Base/Place” policy. Sri Lanka is seen as one such ‘Place.’ From Sri Lanka’s perspective, my point is if Sri Lanka chooses to be a “Place, Base or Pearl” it will immediately destroy our aspiration to be a hub, one can’t be a hub with Strings attached.”
Is this SOFA an example of the ‘lily pad concept’ (a term that describes the US’s new way of deploying its forces around the world where, instead of building permanent bases abroad, it would use the existing facilities of other countries to intervene quickly in times of crisis)?
Vidanage’s response is that the US faces two geopolitical challenges. One is re-working a strategy in a world that is clearly not the post-cold war world. “That era has ended, the US for the first time since World War II has to rethink and redefine its strategies, institutions and be pragmatic about emergence of new great powers, China probably will be the first but not the last.”
“The same time the US is facing mounting military costs with its engagements in the Middle East, call for cost cuts in military spending, and re-investing in more domestic sectors given the problematic economic situation.”
“These two challenges have made the US go for the so called ‘Asian Pivot’ or’ re-balancing strategy’ as the former secretary of defense Panetta claimed ‘establishing a leaner and meaner military’.”
“….. At the same time given the two challenges the Obama administration has managed to achieve a balance between falling back to Fort USA and empire USA by setting into motion a new strategy which actually increases US force deployment globally but with a smaller foot print, the Lily pads appearing in most of Africa and in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are an example of this strategy backed by Drone air power,” Vidanage said.
Does the 2016 expiry date of the US lease on Diego Garcia (a British Indian Ocean Territory where the US has a military base) have anything to do with the US-Maldives SOFA?
Vidanage says “Given the theatre of operation Diego Garcia is too far I guess, US wants to be closer to where the action is, simple as that.”