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US-Sri Lanka naval exercise at port managed by China

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The expeditionary fast transport ship, USNS Millinocket, is participating in a weeklong joint United States-Sri Lanka naval exercise that started April 19, 2019. (Photo: US Navy/IANS) by .
The expeditionary fast transport ship, USNS Millinocket, is participating in a weeklong joint United States-Sri Lanka naval exercise that started April 19, 2019. (Photo: US Navy/IANS)

In a show of Colombo’s firm control over its China-managed Hambanatota port, Sri Lanka is conducting a naval exercise with the US there…writes ARUL LOUIS

The expeditionary fast transport ship, USNS Millinocket, is participating in a weeklong joint United States-Sri Lanka naval exercise that started April 19, 2019. (Photo: US Navy/IANS) by .
The expeditionary fast transport ship, USNS Millinocket, is participating in a weeklong joint United States-Sri Lanka naval exercise that started April 19, 2019. (Photo: US Navy/IANS)

The week-long exercise known as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) began on April 20 and was “focused on building inter-operability and strengthening relationships” between the armed forces of the two countries, according to a US Navy statement.

The exercise at the port, financed and run by China, is loaded with symbolism: Sri Lanka is demonstrating that it retains strategic control of the harbour, while the US that wants to strategically counterbalance Beijing’s growing projection of military power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region, is bringing in its naval ships right into a Chinese-managed port.

Guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance, expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Millinocket and a submarine-hunting P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft are participating in the exercise, the US navy release said.

It called the port Hamanatota, using a variant of the official name, Hambanatota.

The Spruance had participated in a joint anti-submarine exercise last week by the Indian and US navies in the Indian Ocean that deployed P-8 aircraft of both countries.

A Sri Lankan Navy statement quoted by the Colombo newspaper Daily Mirror said: “The main objective of the exercise is to strengthen the maritime security and cooperation. It is expected to enhance the bilateral cooperation through small boat handling, diving exercises, anti-terrorist operations, community welfare activities, sports and social services.”

The Beijing government-owned China Harbor Engineering Company built the $1.5 billion Hambanatota port when Mahinda Rajapakse was president with a loans Beijing gave as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Unable to bear the burden of the Chinese loans, Sri Lanka handed over a 70 per cent stake in the port on a 99-year lease and its management to China Merchants Port Holdings for $1.12 billion in 2017.

Beijing’s majority ownership and management of the port raised fears that the harbour at India’s doorstep could be used by Chinese military forces, which would also gain a strategic point on the Indian Ocean maritime artery connecting Europe and the Middle East with East and Southeast Asia.

Colombo has said that China has been told that the port cannot be used for military purposes and announced last June that it was moving its navy’s Southern Command from Galle to Hambanatota.

Holding the joint naval exercise there with the US, which opposes China’s growing influence in the region, reinforces Sri Lanka’s claim of strategic control over the port and denial of Chinese military presence in Hambanatota.

Unlike its drill with the US, Sri Lanka’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 joint exercise with Australia last month skirted Hambanatota. According to the Australian Defence Ministry, two of its ships visited Colombo and two others Trincomalee during the exercise.

During the CARAT exercise, Sri Lankan armed forces and American Navy personnel and Marines are training together to build inter-operability, the US Navy statement said.

The exercise “will offer Sailors and Marines a chance to conduct underwater diving sessions, combat lifesaving training and practice small boat manoeuvers” while “Sri Lankan sailors will have the chance to serve aboard Navy vessels for hands-on learning during the at-sea phase of the exercise to increase inter-operability between the two countries”, it added.

CARAT exercise, now in its 25th year, is conducted with nine countries in South and Southeast Asia and this year’s series starts in Sri Lanka.

CARAT “strengthens partnerships between regional navies and enhances maritime security cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific”, the Navy statement said.

“CARAT is an adaptable and evolving exercise,” it quoted US Lt. Cmdr. Emilie Krajan as saying.

“We work together with each partner nation as they develop tailored scenarios to address our shared maritime security concerns.”