Shot in the arm for Wickremesinghe as US State Department says no plan to set up military base in Sri Lanka 

WION New Delhi Jul 18, 2019, 01.30 PM(IST)

Sri Lanka PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. Photograph:( Reuters )

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This has come as a shot in the arm for Wickremesinghe who is under fire from Opposition lawmakers who accuse him of allowing the United States to expand its footprint on the island to counter China's influence in the wider Indian Ocean region.

Amid the differences between Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena over security ties with the United States, a US State Department spokesperson has said they have no intention to establish a military base in the island nation.

"We have no ambition to establish a US military base or establish a permanent US military presence in Sri Lanka," the spokesperson told WION. "We envision benefits to both the United States and Sri Lanka, and to peace and security in the Indian Ocean region, as a result of a strengthened defence relationship," the spokesperson further said.

This has come as a shot in the arm for Wickremesinghe who is under fire from Opposition lawmakers who accuse him of allowing the United States to expand its footprint on the island to counter China's influence in the wider Indian Ocean region.

Wickremesinghe told the country's parliament last week that the proposed status-of-forces agreement or SOFA - called the visiting forces agreement (VFA) in Sri Lanka - with the US was not a military pact but only an agreement establishing the rights and privileges that US military personnel would enjoy if they were in the country.

"The SOFA is a peacetime document, and does not address the rules of war, laws of armed conflict, or laws of the sea. It does not authorise specific exercises, activities, or missions," he said.

He also said it only established the framework for US military personnel operations, and that while the discussions were under way he would not support any agreement that threatens Sri Lanka's sovereignty.

The US State Department spokesperson too said that the benefit of finalising an updated VFA is that it will facilitate our ability to work together to support stability, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and other shared priorities in the Indian Ocean region.

Sirisena, however, said he would not sign any military cooperation deals that are "unsuitable for the country".

Sri Lanka sits near one of the world's busiest shipping routes in the Indian Ocean and over the last several years China has become a major investor, building ports and highways.

India, which is just next door, is starting to push back against China's growing influence and so are the United States and Japan, experts say.

The VFA issue has snowballed into a major political controversy in Sri Lanka, pitting Wickremesinghe against his rivals ahead of the presidential election to be held later this year.