By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
A perfect geopolitical storm is churning the waters in three geographies: the Black Sea due to the Ukraine war, the Red Sea due to the Houthis and the South China Sea due to China. The Palestinian death toll has passed 25,000, and the war in Gaza with tit-for-tat strikes has extended to the entire Middle East and beyond. While the retaliation strikes by the US-led coalition against Houthi rebels are limited, how long could they sustain, avoiding a direct clash?
In a Foreign Affairs article, Jake Sullivan writes, ‘Biden’s approach returns discipline to U.S. policy. It emphasises deterring aggression, de-escalating conflicts, and integrating the region through joint infrastructure projects and new partnerships, including between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Further adding, ‘The Israeli-Palestinian situation is tense, particularly in the West Bank, but in the face of serious frictions, we have de-escalated crises in Gaza’. While Sullivan is congratulating the US foreign policy sophistication of his administration, forgetting the non-commitment of the US when Saudi Arabia was waging an intense war with the Iran-backed Houthis a few years ago. Today, the US is confronting the Houthi retaliatory attacks, and the Saudis are not fighting the Houthis. Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, does not wish any disruption to his razor-focused Vision 2030 reform plan or his established communication channels with Iran via a China-brokered deal. Today, Saudis are cautioning the United States to act with restraint. On 12th January, the US and the British launched an attack on over 60 Houthi targets. Three years ago, Biden removed Houthis from the foreign terrorist list, and now he has relabeled the Houthis as a specially designated global terrorist group. Wall Street Journal Columnist Walter Russel Mead says, ‘Mugged by reality, Mr. Biden has switched direction’. One may wonder where the sophistication in foreign policy calculation is.
Houthi may sound like a recent headline to mainstream media, although they were fighting a two-decade war with the Gulf partners and the US. There have been continuous failed approaches by the US in Yemen over the past 20 years, and decades of experience have proven that military efforts alone to dislodge the Houthis are unlikely to be effective. The Iranian Quds Force continues helping the Houthis build its stockpiles of sophisticated weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles, which the rebels have used to disrupt one of the busiest container ship canals in the Red Sea. The disruption to the choke point had already cost global shipping and jolted the US into conflict. Houthi rebels intended to end the support extended by the US for the ongoing Israel war with Palestine in Gaza. When reflecting on the past, similar measures have been taken to achieve strategic objectives in the Gulf. The 1973 Arab oil embargo to keep US support away from the Arab-Israeli War in retaliation for the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military is one such incident.
Proxy wars in South Asia
With the US intention to hit back at Houthis, multiple proxy wars are mushrooming beyond the region. There is a gradual build-up of security tension from the war in Gaza, overspilling to the neighbouring region, South Asia. Houthis attacking maritime vessels in the Indian Ocean, disrupting international shipments through the Swiss canal, and the present Iran-Pakistan tension is clear evidence in this regard. Multiple proxy wars are emerging in the region. After Iran hit targets in Iraq and Syria on January 17th, Iran launched a missile attack in western Pakistan targeting Jaish al-Adl, the Sunni militants blacklisted by Iran. Pakistan retaliated with strikes inside Iran in southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province; the strike was called “Marg Bar Sarmachar”, meaning (death to the guerrilla fighters). Proxy wars would intensify, and maritime security would be a critical factor in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka joins US-led military campaign
Sri Lanka has already joined the US-led military campaign with the commitment of sending a navy vessel to join the multinational Operation ‘Prosperity Guardian’ to secure commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea against Houthi attacks.
Michael Kugelman from the Wilson Center assesses, “It is striking that a country generally seen as nonaligned—and dealing with severe economic stress—would sign on to a military operation dominated by Western powers.”. With the beginning of the year, there has been a quick recalibration of Wickremasinghe’s anti-Indo-Pacific foreign policy stance, which he took a few months ago. First, the President declared a Moratorium on Chinese research ships, rightly evaluating the Chinese intent of civilian research as not so genuine due to the hidden military intent. Second, unlike the previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, Washington has strengthened its relations by opening U.S. financial support for the economic crisis, followed by the recent pledge to invest $553 million in an Indian port project in Colombo. Third, Sri Lanka extended its support towards the Western maritime security alliance backed by the US and UK to attack Houthi rebels.
All three decisions were made to minimise the Chinese largeness on the island, which was a direct security concern for Sri Lanka and neighbouring India. Sri Lanka’s commitment to join the maritime security alliance to secure international waters will benefit Sri Lanka immensely in establishing itself as a nation committed to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific(FOIP). However, the benefit of being with the Western alliance to secure a rules-based order is much more; the exercise will expand Sri Lanka’s capabilities and expertise in maritime security in many areas. According to Rear Admiral Y.N Jayarathna(Rtd) from the Sri Lanka Navy ‘it is time we extend our “operational interest” to the Gulf of Yemen and the Arabian Sea whilst amalgamating our national interests in fighting the drug menace from the sea’. Partnerships with other countries will help Sri Lanka to fight drug trafficking. Rear Admiral Jayarathna also points out a drawback in Sri Lanka’s exercise to fight Houthis, ‘Sri Lanka will be tagged as a “partner” for US-led initiatives, thereby indirectly hinting at a possible association with the QUAD camp at the expense of the China camp!’. Unfortunately, due to China’s significant influence, this binary mentality dominates the island’s most foreign policy circle. Sri Lanka was a founding vanguard in the past towards UNCLOS Law of the Sea and ‘Indian Ocean Zone for Peace’, a natural, historical commitment in its foreign policy, a pull factor towards the present ‘Rules-based order’.
Sri Lanka requires a broader strategic viewpoint calculating the interests of Sri Lanka and her genuine regional security commitment to preserving a rules-based order. There is an opportunity paved by President Wickremasinghe’s present commitment to support the US-led alliance structure. Wickremasinghe has tilted his previous China tilt towards a pragmatic foreign policy, joining the US-led alliance to fight Houthis, followed by his Davos visit where he continued to commit to liberal values and at the same time pledged support to Global South at the non-aligned summit for long-lasting solutions for many global issues, including for Palestine. The dual approach is a perfect fit for Sri Lanka, following Sri Lanka’s neighbour, India’s multi-aligned foreign policy. Sri Lanka, an active partner with other like-minded US-led operations against Houthis, could develop its maritime domain capacity to secure the Indian Ocean as a primary goal. Sri Lanka’s military reputation for international peacekeeping and joint military exercises has continued up to the present day. The country has benefited and could continue as an Indian Ocean force for securing maritime security. Sri Lankan navy’s recent approach towards working with the EU on implementing CRIMARIO on maritime crisis management is another area in which Sri Lanka could strengthen its position to commit to securing the maritime domain with other partners. As the present Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Chair, Sri Lanka is at a perfect juncture to develop its capacity and share its commitment with other partners to counter non-traditional security (NTS) threats in the Indian Ocean. By working closely with other Indo-Pacific nations, economic stabilisation and export development targets could be achieved through introducing mechanisms such as IPEF(Indo-Pacific Economic Framework). While there is a domestic concern about the operational cost of maritime patrolling due to the prevailing economic crisis, this should not limit the more significant economic and strategic benefits Sri Lanka could achieve with the US-led coalition, principally projecting its commitment towards a Rules-based order and International Law.
(Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the Executive Director of the South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) under the Millennium Project in Washington, DC. He is the author of‘Teardrop Diplomacy’ published by Bloomsbury in 2023.)