In our first opinion piece of 2021, Dr Niro Kandasamy considers Australia’s relationship with Sri Lanka and argues that we need to take a more active and engaged role in the strategically vital Indian Ocean region.
By Niro Kandasamy
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison committed to strengthening Australia’s ties to states in the Indian Ocean, by announcing the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) that would bring Australia closer to India. The announcement of the CSP at the India-Australia Leaders’ Virtual Summit on 4 June 2020 made clear the elevation of Australia’s strategic engagement with India and the Indian Ocean region:
Our enhanced arrangements will facilitate deeper engagement between our two countries including maritime domain awareness.
Australia has been vowing to “deepen joint exercises” and “build maritime domain awareness” with its Indian Ocean partners in recent years. Morrison has stated that the Indian Ocean “is where we have our greatest influence and can make the most meaningful impact and contribution”.
The Indian Ocean is economically and strategically significant to Australia, which has the longest coastline of any nation in the Indian Ocean. Threats to maritime security coupled with Sino-Indian rivalry have resulted in growing strategic responses by Australia. The CSP and naval exercises such as the Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE19) are in line with Australia’s commitments to boost its involvement in the Indian Ocean region that is fast becoming a lead player in global affairs.
Yet, Australia’s cooperation with states in the Indian Ocean continues to fall short of achieving meaningful advancements in maritime security when compared to its engagements in the Pacific Ocean. What is at risk is not only how the Indian Ocean is conceptualised – as a political and natural environment – but the diverse social, cultural and political challenges facing each of the states in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka – a strategically positioned island state at the bottom of the Indian sub-continent – is a case in point. Sri Lanka is in a maritime corridor that sees around 60% of the world’s ships pass through. Its historical significance is also noteworthy. The Trincomalee port was used by Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisers as naval and military headquarters. During the Second World War, Sri Lanka became the most important naval base between the Cape and Australia in the Indian Ocean.
Australia’s relations with Sri Lanka have been steadily growing since the 1970s when the Indian Ocean gained strategic importance at the height of the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Australian economic interests in Sri Lanka expanded considerably during the 1980s through trade missions and investments, indicating its significant service to the West.
At the same time, Sri Lanka was grappling with its own ethnic tensions, as the Tamil separatist movement began mobilising in the north and east of the island in response to the intensification of oppression against Tamil communities. A turning point in the tensions was the Tamil massacre in 1983 that left approximately 2,000 Tamils dead and another 200,000 internally displaced. Foreign confidence in Sri Lanka was inevitably shaken by the events of 1983 and resulted in the beginning of a twenty-six-year civil war that ended in 2009. The United Nations admitted its “grave failure” in protecting Tamil civilians during the final stages of the conflict – close to 70,000 Tamil civilians died, mainly due to government attacks.
Security is made much of in Sri Lanka, which currently has the most financial resources to support its maritime security of any Indian Ocean island state. China has supported the ultranationalist Sri Lankan government for decades in varying capacities – cultural, economic and political. In recent weeks China has promised to defend the Rajapaksa government at the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in early 2021, where it faces long-standing international scrutiny over its civil war record and human rights abuses. Regional powers such as Australia and India have been observing China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka.
Recognising its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper states that:
Sri Lanka’s location on a vital maritime corridor in the Indian Ocean has seen Australia gradually increase defence cooperation.
In 2019, Australia held its largest ever defence engagement activity with Sri Lanka as part of its IPE19. But Australia must reckon with Sri Lanka’s internal political issues if it wants to increase defence cooperation with the island state. The current conception of Australia’s maritime security does not extend to ensuring lasting political security on the land. What this conception misses – apart from the historical relevance of the political stability of smaller island states in the Indian Ocean region – are the very conditions that need to be addressed in order to overcome threats to maritime security.
Failing to understand and address the political agitations within states will make it difficult for Australia to establish its status as a regional power in the Indian Ocean. Earlier this year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that he expected Sri Lanka to address the political aspirations of the Tamil communities for “equality, justice, peace, and respect within a united Sri Lanka”. These remarks will have little effect on the Sri Lankan regime but what it shows is the noticeable cracks in Sri Lanka’s democratic stability in the post-war period. At the upcoming UNHRC, Australia has an opportunity to challenge Sri Lanka – and China – in their defence of Sri Lanka’s civil war and human rights records. Failure to take a holistic approach to security advancements in the Indian Ocean will only result in Australia’s perpetuation of violence and instability in the region, leaving its maritime security agendas hollow and complicit.
 Commonwealth Government of Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs, “Joint Statement on a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Republic of India and Australia”, 2020.
 Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Policy Address. Asialink and Bloomberg, 2019. >https://asialink.unimelb.edu.au/stories/australia-and-the-indo-pacific-an-address-by-prime-minister-scott-morrison<
 C. Petrie, “Report of the Secretary General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Actions in Sri Lanka”, Geneva: United Nations, 2012, p. 28.
 A. Bergin, D. Brewster and A. Bachhawat, “Ocean horizons. Strengthening maritime security in Indo-Pacific island states”, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2019, p. 37.
 Commonwealth Government of Australia, Defence White Paper, 2016, p. 135.