Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday declared the Aukus security pact between Australia, Britain and the US “a mistake” while rejecting any concerns over Beijing’s perceived influence on his debt-ridden island nation.
“It is a military alliance moved against one country – China,” he said at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
“I think it’s a strategic misstep. I think they made a mistake,” Wickremesinghe added, describing the alliance as unnecessary. “I don’t think it was needed.”
Created in September 2021, Aukus is described by the governments of its member states as a security partnership involving information and technology sharing on nuclear-powered submarines, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities.
Wickremesinghe laughed off the term “Indo-Pacific”, calling the recently-coined geostrategic zone an “artificial framework”.
“Nobody knows what’s Indo-Pacific,” he said. “For some people, the Indo-Pacific ends on the western boundary of India, others take it into Africa, and some end up with Western Pacific, others go to South Pacific.”
The Sri Lankan leader said the Sino-US rivalry originated in the Western Pacific but had now spread to both the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.
“Why we are getting pulled into it? It’s difficult for us to understand,” he said, stressing that he had seen many geopolitical blocs shifting in his decades-long political career.
“The next round of rivalry is going on. And that’s taking place in Asia. It’s the question of China versus the US, on how they are going to divide their region of influence in Asia,” Wickremesinghe said.
On an expected expansion of Nato into Asia, he said “as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, we don’t want any military activity” and that most countries in the region “will not want Nato anywhere close by”.
Sri Lanka’s Hambatota port has long been cited in discussion around China’s lending practices along with accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy” but in his address on Monday, Wickremesinghe accused the West of having a scant understanding of how the Indian Ocean region operates.
He rejected reports that Colombo was letting Beijing operate a military base in Sri Lanka. He said the Hambantota was a commercial port run by Chinese state-owned China Merchants Group, and that the security of the port lay with the Sri Lanka Navy.
He also countered recent claims made by New Delhi that Beijing was sending ships to Sri Lanka to spy on India.
“There are no spy ships in Sri Lanka. I don’t know if anyone can establish a spy ship,” Wickremesinghe said, describing them as “research vessels” that had been visiting for the past 10 years under an agreement between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Sri Lanka’s national aquatic research agency. (Sout China Morning Post)