Sat, Oct 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

As Chinese influence grows, Japanese warship visits Sri Lanka

By Tim Kelly  /  Reuters, COLOMBO

Japan’s largest warship, the Kaga helicopter carrier, sailed into the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka last weekend, marking Tokyo’s highest-profile salvo in a diplomatic battle with China for influence along the region’s vital commercial sea lanes.

Japan has long provided low-interest loans and aid to Sri Lanka, helping it transform Colombo into a major trans-shipment port tapping the artery of global trade just south of the island that links Europe and the Middle East with Asia.

However, Beijing has emerged as a powerful rival across South Asia and beyond as it implements its Belt and Road Initiative.

China and Japan are also flexing their military muscles further from home. China’s navy is increasingly venturing beyond the western Pacific and into the Indian Ocean as it targets a world-class blue water fleet by 2050, while Japan’s military diplomacy is flourishing under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“Japan’s government is promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and this deployment in the Asia-Pacific is a component of that strategy,” Rear Admiral Tatsuya Fukuda, commander of the Kaga and its destroyer escort, said in his cabin as the carrier steamed for Colombo through the Indian Ocean.

“Maritime security and stability is of critical importance” to an island nation such as Japan, he added.

On its way to Sri Lanka, the 248m ship was shadowed by Chinese frigates in the South China Sea and carried out naval drills in the Philippines and Indonesia. It also drilled with a British Royal Navy frigate before docking in Colombo on Sunday with 500 sailors and four submarine hunting helicopters aboard.

As part of the goodwill visit, the Kaga’s crew also brought packets of colorful origami paper and crafted flowers for children who came to tour the ship after it docked.

The visit was intended to reassure Sri Lanka of Japan’s willingness and capability to dispatch its most powerful military assets to a region where China is growing in influence.

“Sri Lanka, as a hub in the Indian Ocean, and upholding its commitment to a free and open Indian Ocean, welcomes naval vessels from all our partner nations to interact with Sri Lanka’s navy,” Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Mahishini Colonne said. “Several navy vessels from our partner countries have visited Sri Lanka this year already and the ship from Japan, a close bilateral partner, is welcomed in the same spirit.”

Sri Lanka agreed to cede control of the new US$1.5 billion Hambantota Port on its southern coast to China Merchants Port Holdings in a bid to ease the debt burden it has accumulated with Beijing.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies it engages in unsustainable or unwanted lending and says the port project would help Sri Lanka become an Indian Ocean logistics hub.

Tokyo’s diplomatic counteroffensive included a visit in January by Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono, the first by a top Japanese diplomat in 16 years.

In August, Japan’s minister of defense also went to Sri Lanka and visited Hambantota.

“Sri Lanka is a key country within the region and a core part of Japan’s open and free Indo-Pacific strategy. A monopoly by any country at a Sri Lankan port would run counter to that,” a Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

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