Tuesday, 26 January 2016




East terminal, Colombo port, January 21: INS Vikramaditya.
(Pic Dimuthu Premaratne)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Commanding Officer of INS Vikramaditya, Captain Krishna Swaminathan said that he hadn’t been involved in IPKF operations in Sri Lanka. Captain Swaminathan was responding to the writer, after having briefed Sri Lankan media, as well as Colombo - based Indian correspondents, last Thursday (January 21) afternoon at the recently built east terminal, Colombo port, one of the many major Chinese - funded projects.

The incumbent government commissioned the first section of the east terminal. Once completed, the total length of the east terminal will be 1,200m.

Captain Swaminathan’s curt response deprived the writer of an opportunity to pose a second question. The Indian intervention led to Indian trained terrorists making an attempt on the life of the then Maldivian President, during the first week of Nov. 1988. The Indian navy intercepted and sank MV Progress Light which had been commandeered by members of the People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) after their operation went awry. Although, the Indian navy proudly referred to its intervention, in Male, codenamed ‘Operation Cactus, New Delhi never accepted the responsibility for causing terrorism in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It would be pertinent to mention that two trawlers, carrying about 80 PLOTE cadres, surreptitiously left Mannar, under the very noses of the Indian navy, to reach Male. Under the Indo-Lanka Accord, the Indian navy had been tasked to prevent unauthorized movements to and from Sri Lanka. Remember, in the 80s, the Indian navy operated two aircraft carriers.

The PLOTE has ended up as a constituent of the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) running the Northern Provincial Council and the main Opposition in parliament.

INS Vikramaditya’s highly publicized three-day visit to Colombo should be examined against the backdrop of India’s intervention in Sri Lanka, in the early 80s, the relationship between the previous Sri Lankan government and China, and drastic change in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since the much touted January 2015 revolution.

As scheduled, India’s most powerful warship, INS Vikramaditya, reached the east terminal at 9 a.m. last Thursday. The vessel, formerly of the Soviet and then Russian navies, had been accompanied by destroyer, INS Mysore. India acquired the vessel in late 2013. The Indian built destroyer, along with another vessel, INS Ranvir, had been deployed just outside Sri Lankan territorial waters, in late July 2008 to provide security to the then Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was here to attend the 15th SAARC summit. India feared the possibility of a spectacular LTTE assault, hence the decision to position warships. The deployment was meant to ensure swift military intervention in case the LTTE, a brainchild of India, mounted an assault in Colombo.

India positioned two frigates, within visible distance off the Galle Face, when the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, flew into Colombo to sign the Indo-Lanka Accord, on July 29, 1987.

Captain Swaminathan said that his ship and INS Mysore were transiting, from the West Coast of India, to Visakhapatnam, on the East Coast of India, to participate in the second International Fleet Review (IFR) being hosted by the Indian Navy early next month (Feb 4-8). Naval ships from about 50 countries, including Sri Lanka, are scheduled to participate in this prestigious event. The first IFR was held off Mumbai in 2001. China will participate in the February event.

A brochure, made available to the visiting media on-board INS Vikramaditya revealed that Swaminathan had been commissioned on first of July, 1987, less than a month before India deployed troops in Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka in accordance with Indo-Lanka Accord inked in Colombo.

Twenty four hours before the visit, the Indian High Commission in Colombo declared: "The visit to Colombo, by INS Vikramaditya, will be its maiden overseas port call after its arrival in India, two years ago, and is a manifestation of the close maritime cooperation and mutual trust between India and Sri Lanka."

In fact, INS Vikramaditya is the first aircraft carrier to dock in Colombo harbour. The significant event took place during Vice Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne’s tenure as the Commander of Navy. According wartime Navy Chief retired Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, aircraft carriers, USS Enterprise as well as FNS Foch, had visited Sri Lanka in the late 70s though both were anchored outside the old harbour due to the Colombo port not being able to accommodate them. Karannagoda, then a Lieutenant, recalled having the opportunity to be on-board the French warship for a five-day period. Karannagoda said: "I was brought back in a helicopter after five days." The USS Enterprise had a crew of over 4,000, much more than the entire strength of the Sri Lankan navy, at that time, Karannagoda emphasized.

In the wake of the January 2015 revolution, the US invited a high level Sri Lankan delegation to visit aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, anchored off Sri Lanka, in international waters. The Sri Lankan delegation included Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera. The April 19, 2015, visit marked a significant development in US-Sri Lanka relations. Two days before, an Indian delegation visited the aircraft carrier.

"This was amazing and an extraordinary opportunity for us to see first hand the enormity and complex set of flight operations," said Samaraweera. "This is something we have only seen in films before," the media quoted Foreign Minister Samaraweera as having said.

"Visits like these are impressive and incredibly informative," said Andrew Mann, charge d’ affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka. "It really helped our Sri Lankan Navy counterparts understand the power that this aircraft carrier can project and what it is able to achieve."

INS Vikramaditya’s visit certainly marked a new chapter in Indo-Sri Lanka relations with President Maithripala Sirisena receiving a guard of honour on-board the Indian platform on January 23. Defence Minister Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, was received on-board by Rear Admiral Ranveet Singh, Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet and Captain Swaminathan. The visit was President Sirisena’s first to a warship, local or foreign. Most importantly, he was the first foreign head of state to visit the Indian flagship.

Since it was the first ever foreign port, being visited by INS Vikramaditya, after being inducted into the Indian Navy two years ago, it made the visit of the President, on-board, even more remarkable. Senior military officials and their families as well as top officials visited the Indian carrier, one of two such vessels operated by the Indian navy. The massive ship reflected the growing Indian influence in the region, with New Delhi teaming up with the US to pursue a common agenda.

India recently scrapped its first aircraft carrier, Intransitive (formerly HMS Hercules), inducted to her navy in 1961. There cannot be a better phrase than the one used by the Mumbai-based Western Fleet to describe INS Vikramaditya: 45,400 tons of Diplomacy. The vessel’s motto, Strike Far, Strike Sure aptly explains its role. The rapid expansion of the Indian navy, and her ties with US and Japan should be deliberated in the backdrop of a simmering US-China conflict over South China sea disputes. India recently equipped INS Vikramaditya with advanced Barak long range surface-to-missile system that has been jointly developed by Israel and India. A six-day joint US-Japan-India naval exercise, off the Andamans archipelago, in the Bay of Bengal, last October, reflected closer ties among the three countries. Some consider US-Japan-India might as a counterweight to growing Chinese influence in the world.

China commissioned her first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, in late Sept. 2012, well over five decades after India acquired her first.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) participated in the Malabar Exercise last year, too. MSDF took part in the exercises in 2007 and 2008. Although the US and India had been originally involved in Malabar exercise, Japan is now likely to become a permanent participant.

The US, as well as regional powers, are obviously keen to enhance their relationship with the new Sri Lankan leadership in the wake of the Rajapaksas defeat at the presidential and parliamentary polls, in January, and August, 2015. The recently initiated Sri Lanka-Japan policy dialogue, at senior official level, reflected keen Japanese interest in enhancing ties. The first round of talks took place on January 12, in Colombo, in accordance with a joint declaration on a ‘Comprehensive Partnership" issued during the visit of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to Japan in October, 2015. The Foreign Ministry said: "Under the framework of the Policy Dialogue it was decided to hold three specialized Dialogues: a Dialogue on Maritime Security, Safety and Oceanic Issues to be chaired by the Ministry of Defence; an Economic Cooperation Policy Dialogue & Consultation on National Development Cooperation, to be chaired by the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs, and an Economic Policy Dialogue, to be chaired by the Ministry of Development Strategies & International Trade in the months of January, February and May of this year, respectively. The next round of the Policy Dialogue at the Senior Official Level of the two Foreign Ministries, will be held in Tokyo, in early 2017."

President Maithripala Sirisena recent declaration that visits undertaken by Chinese, Indian and Japanese warships, to Colombo port are a huge blessing to Sri Lanka and should be examined in the context of further strengthening of US, Japan and India partnership. The US has conveniently forgotten serious human rights accusations directed at the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi over the massacre of over 2,000 Muslims, in his state, during the 2002 riots. Although the Bush administration, in March 2005, had denied Modi, entry to America, over his alleged complicity in communal riots, President Obama revoked the ban. The US couldn’t have sustained its influence in the region without Modi’s India. The Bush administration denied Modi tourist and business visa, in addition to diplomatic visa. Had the State Department envisaged the possibility of the then Gujarat Chief Minister’s rise, it wouldn’t have resorted to such drastic measures. India never allowed the visa issue, or the humiliation of Modi, to undermine its relationship with the US.

The British, resuming military ties with Sri Lanka, after a lapse of several years, is also significant. The UK recalled her Colombo-based military advisor, in 2009, amidst serious rift with the previous government. The UK recently accredited her New Delhi based defence attache to Colombo. Former Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, asserted that with the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, Colombo had the opportunity to host many foreign warships, particularly those, either on their way for counter piracy missions off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, or returning from such operations. The Chinese vessels, too, had used the port of Colombo, Rajapaksa said, alleging that routine Chinese visits were portrayed as something sinister and clandestine project meant to undermine India. In the run-up to the last presidential polls, the reportage of the Chinese naval visits assumed an extremely hostile approach with a section of the Indian media, as well as the Sri Lankan media propagating lies regarding entry of Chinese nuclear submarines to Sri Lankan waters. Emphasizing that during Rajapaksa’s presidency, the government never resorted to a strategy inimical to India or any other, the war veteran said that the administration was keen to sustain relations with all countries. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recalled all UN Security Council members participating at an event, in Colombo, in 2013, to mark the SLN’s 60th anniversary. Rajapaksa said of the five permanent Security Council members, Russia (Udaloy-class Destroyer Admiral Vinogrado) and China (Missile Destroyer Lanzhou) had sent warships. The US, UK and France, too, had sent senior-level naval delegations, the Defence Secretary said, adding "the country wouldn’t have attracted the ‘big’ five if we had still been at war. In fact, many countries would have been reluctant to send warships had we been bogged down on the northern front."

In the wake of wild allegations regarding Chinese nuclear submarines and Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka, the then Navy Chief Vice Admiral, Jayantha Perera, stressed that the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) would not cause hostilities among countries under any circumstances. Such a course of action would be inimical to all countries, including Sri Lanka, VA Perera said in an exclusive interview titled Navy Chief: Sri Lanka’s relationship with China not at India’s expense published on Nov 6, 2015 edition. "There is absolutely no need for Sri Lanka to pursue a strategy hostile to India or any other country," he said.

The then navy chief was responding to allegations that GoSL had aligned itself with the People’s Republic of China by accommodating nuclear-powered Chinese submarines at the port of Colombo in spite of India’s serious concerns.

VA Perera said: "The Chinese submarine Changchen 2, accompanied by another vessel Changxingdao, reached Colombo. on Sept. 7, 2014, for refuelling and crew refreshment. The vessels left on Sept. 13. They were on their way to the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. The same vessels arrived at the Colombo port on Oct. 31. They were to leave on Nov 5."

The navy chief stressed that contrary to claims being made in some quarters, the Chinese submarine wasn’t a nuclear powered one on some clandestine mission. The Janes could shed light on the vessel, he said.

Responding to a query, VA Perera said that the growing relations between Indo-Lanka navies reflected the strong bilateral relationship between the South-east Asian neighbours. The Indo-Lanka ties had received a further boost consequent to his recent visit (Oct. 26-30) to India on the invitation of new Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral R.K. Dhowan. VA Perera was accompanied by his wife, Shalika.

VA Perera dismissed suggestions that India had called for urgent talks due to the Chinese submarine visit.

The navy chief said that during his visit to New Delhi, the Indian media had raised two questions as regards, what they called, the Chinese military presence as well Chinese submarines docking at the Colombo Port. VA Perera said that there had never been a permanent Chinese military presence, in Sri Lanka, though during the conflict, representatives of many countries had visited Sri Lanka. The acquisition of a range of armaments from different countries to fight terrorists during such visits was almost routine, the navy chief said.

Successive governments acquired weapons, including artillery, gun boats, armoured personnel carriers, transport aircraft and assault rifles, etc., from China.

VA Perera said that since the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009, China, as well as India, had launched some major projects in Sri Lanka.

Responding to another query, VA Perera said that India remained a key defence partner with ongoing bilateral engagements, such as training exercises at different levels. "And there were trilateral engagements such as Coast Guard exercise involving India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The latest trilateral exercise codenamed, DOSTI XII (Oct 28-31), was conducted in the seas off Male."

Recollecting the role played by Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), acquired and loaned by India, during eelam war IV, the navy chief said that India was in the process of building two more OPVs for the SLN.

A despicable attempt was also being made to portray the Colombo Port as being mainly used by Chinese vessels, the Navy Chief said. According to him, since 2010, 206 warships belonging to different nations have visited Sri Lanka. Among the countries which had utilized facilities here were Russia, America, China, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, France, Italy and Iran.

An Iranian submarine docked in Colombo during 2013. It was accompanied by two ships.

The navy chief said that Sri Lanka always believed in regional stability.