Defence cooperation with Japan: Opportunities for Sri Lanka

by Wathsunu Rajinda Jayathilleka

Published on The Morning on 06th May 2024.

In a world where the economy is rapidly growing, the element of cooperation between states is known to be an important factor in strengthening international relations between states. Further, the bilateral relationship between states is further strengthened through cooperation in different ways and means. One such way of strengthening bilateral relations between states is through economic cooperation. However, there is another way of strengthening cooperation between states, and that is through defence cooperation. According to the Defense Acquisition University in the United States of America, defence cooperation is a standard term for the range of activities undertaken by states with their allies and other friendly nations to promote international security. “Such activity includes, but need not be confined to, security assistance, industrial cooperation, armaments cooperation, Foreign Military Sales (FMS), training, logistics cooperation, cooperative research and development (R&D), Foreign Comparative Testing (FCT), and Host-Nation Support (HNS)”. Therefore, defence cooperation is a mechanism which allows states to strengthen bilateral or multilateral relations with states.

Japan-SL relations

The bilateral relations between Japan and Sri Lanka are based on a rock-solid foundation that was based on Sri Lanka’s unconditional support for Japan’s political freedom efforts after World War II. Referring to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and Sri Lanka, both the countries established their following diplomatic relations in 1952, which have strengthened the bilateral relations until this day. Both countries consist of people-to-people exchange cooperation and, more importantly, increasing economic cooperation, which has boosted bilateral relations between the two countries. For instance, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Sri Lanka, which acts as the executing branch of the ‘Official Development Assistance’(ODA) under the Japanese government, they have executed vast infrastructure projects such as the ‘New Colombo Katunayake expressway Kelaniya bridge and the Bandaranaike International Airport Development Project’, as well as social welfare humanitarian projects such as Strengthening Education for Children with Special Needs through the Inclusive Education Approach in Sri Lanka (REACH-SS). Therefore, through such economic cooperation, it has strengthened the bilateral relations between both countries.

Japan’s changing defence policy

Previously, Japan’s Capacity Building Assistance program was known to be an effective framework for defence cooperation, as it assisted other countries in building their defence capacities through using the Japan’s resources. The Japan Ministry of Defense (JMOD) and the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) worked together to provide support to other countries' military organizations in the field of security and defence by utilizing their resources and capabilities. According to the ‘The Diplomat’ article published in 2023, Japan’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), as part of the news security approved in late 2022 by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s administration which promotes the policy of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, the process of transforming Japan's military from its post-war pacifist isolationism to what both academics and proponents of a more assertive security stance refer to as "normalisation" of its status is an ongoing development. Thereby, setting a new era for Japan in defence role and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. The ‘Official Security Assistance’ (OSA) is a new cooperation framework for the benefit of armed forces and other related organizations of like-minded countries for the purpose of deepening security cooperation, apart from “Official Development Assistance (ODA)” for the economic and social development of developing countries. The purpose and objective of this respective framework is to provide equipment and supplies, as well as support for infrastructure development, to countries with the aim of enhancing their security capabilities and bolstering their deterrence powers. Japan's OSA is a relatively novel and a new domain of cooperation. It symbolizes the potential created by the evolving security discourse, while simultaneously acknowledging the constraints it continues to confront. However, it has promising features for countries in the framework, such as providing equipment and supplies, and deepening security cooperation with “like-minded countries” which value peace, stability, and the rule of law. The guidelines emphasise the principles underlying the use of ODA and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces abroad in recent times, specifically in the areas of humanitarian and disaster relief as well as international peace cooperation. This factor assures that OSA aligns with the objectives and rules of the United Nations (UN) Charter, with Japan presenting itself as a supportive partner. Therefore, OSA acts as a defence cooperative mechanism.

Opportunities SL

Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Asia-Pacific region with non-aligned foreign policy principles, is a friendly nation to Japan. Sri Lanka’s diversification of defence cooperation is an essential need to utilise its independence in security relations, thereby making Japan an imperative country for further diversification defence cooperation in Sri Lanka. As both nations have strong economic cooperation, the defence cooperation is a sector where both states can further optimize their avenues.

However, it is cardinal to mention that Sri Lanka and Japan’s defence cooperation is signified in numerous occasions. For example, Sri Lanka and Japan signed a Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) on Defence Cooperation which facilitated and developed cooperation and exchanges between the two countries in the field of defence on the basis of mutual interest in 2019, which led to a significant avenue of defence corporation projects. For instance, a video teleconference on proactively promoting defence cooperation and exchanges to uphold and reinforce a free and open Indo-Pacific was held in 2021, which further strengthened defence corporation. Following with the video conference, the ‘Japan Ministry of Defense, Japan Self Defense Force and Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) held an online seminar in the field of air rescue, as well as a joint naval exercise - ‘JA –LAN EX’ was held between the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and Sri Lanka Navy concluded on a note to enhance relationships, deepen cooperation between two countries and increase bilateral ties in the scope of Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) in the following year.

Although in the past few years both states have ’engaged in various defence enhancement efforts, Sri Lanka is yet to maximise its bilateral relations with Japan on defence cooperation. Sri Lanka is still not a recipient of the OSA framework, as the framework’s initial recipients are the Philippines, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Fiji. The following defence cooperation framework is a viable source for developing Sri Lanaka’s national security apparatus. For instance, Sri Lanka being an island nation, it needs to constantly monitor its ocean with a strong naval capability. Japan’s OSA is a possible mechanism for strengthening Sri Lanka’s naval capabilities, as Japan is committed to maritime sea-lane trade security because of the freedom of navigation, in which the Indian Ocean is a crucial place. It is a win–win situation for both countries since it has mutual benefits, as the OSA framework focuses on activities for ensuring peace, stability, and security based on the rule of law by monitoring and surveillance in territorial waters and airspace, counter-terrorism, and counter-piracy. Furthermore, disaster response, resilience, and management are critical aspects of the national security apparatus. Therefore, addressing these concerns and providing solutions to disaster response and management is a meaningful way to utilise defence cooperation. Conducting humanitarian activities through disaster response, search and rescue, medical care, and the transport of relief goods is another strong pillar of the OSA framework. The following pillar is very useful to Sri Lanka’s national security apparatus, as it will gain more Japanese technology to enhance the strength of disaster management and response in Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka has not received grants or aid through the OSA framework, Japan has contributed to and helped Sri Lanka to utilize its disaster management and response through various projects through JICA. In an event organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKI) on the 14th of October 2023 with the theme of ‘Disaster Risk Management and Japan’s Role in the IORA’, both high-level officials from Sri Lanka and Japan evaluated the disaster management and response mechanism in Sri Lanka, as well as reiterated the need for strengthening disaster management and response through cooperation. Therefore, it is possible that if Sri Lanka can secure a recipiency from Japan’s OSA, further defence corporations for disaster management and response can be strengthened. Finally, Sri Lanka as a country which contributes to global peace and peacekeeping missions, can further strengthen its peacekeeping efforts through the OSA framework. For the OSA framework, the last pillar in defence cooperation is ‘International peace cooperation operations by building capacity to participate in peacekeeping operations with the UN charter. As Sri Lanka maintains its status as a country contributing to peacekeeping efforts to date, the OSA framework will strengthen Sri Lanka's peacekeeping efforts by a possible allowance to share Japanese military technology and equipment with peacekeeper troops of Sri Lanka.

A way forward

It is important to further emphasize that Sri Lanka is a non-aligned foreign policy state that has shaped its geopolitical identity in the Asia-Pacific region. Traditionally being a non-aligned state and had a unique bilateral relationship with other countries. One such bilateral relationship is Japan-Sri Lanka relations, based on a rock-solid foundation, and both countries have fostered cooperation towards each other. Although economic cooperation is highly consistent with the bilateral relations between Japan and Sri Lanka, the ‘defence cooperation aspect is yet to be utilised. As Japan embarks on a new security and defence approach, it seeks to strengthen defence cooperation with global south countries. As a result, by establishing the OSA. The current recipients of OSA are Bangladesh, Malaysia, Philippines and Fiji. Sri Lanka, being a friend of Japan has the opportunity to strengthen its defence cooperation by gaining recipiency of OSA which will strengthen its national security apparatus. In terms of maritime security, humanitarian and international peace cooperation in Sri Lanka, through Japan’s OSA, Sri Lanka can strengthen its defence sector, fostering a strengthened defence cooperation between Japan and Sri Lanka. Thereby, strengthening Japan-Sri Lanka bilateral relations and cooperation.

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* Mr. U.G. Wathsunu Rajinda Jayathilleka is an Intern (Research)at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established and functioning under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed are his own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.