Lawmakers propose maritime-security aid for India’s neighbors
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 19, 2017
While the Trump administration has yet to define its strategic policy in the Pacific, key lawmakers are urging the Pentagon to expand Obama-era security assistance to countries in the Bay of Bengal to counter China’s growing influence.
The proposed National Defense Authorization Act 2018 directs the Defense Department to expand the Maritime Security Initiative to add Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar to the five Southeast Asian countries already included.
The inclusion underscores the emerging alliance among the United States, India and other Bay of Bengal states as a counterbalance to China’s military and economic ventures in the region.
The waters are central to China’s One Belt One Road project, a massive global infrastructure plan intended to secure trade routes essential to China.
Earlier this year, China released a proposal to build a first-of-its-kind ocean corridor intended to link Southeast Asia with the Bay of Bengal, among other places.
The 2017 NDAA gave the defense secretary permanent, worldwide authority to provide foreign countries with support for training, equipment and sustainment to build capacity for, among other things, maritime and border-security operations.
The first iteration of aid was last year’s Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, which provided assistance to key nations bordering the disputed South China Sea – Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam – over which China has laid claim to a vast swathe. The initiative has funded equipment, training and military construction.
The initiative expansion, proposed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, would build upon a blossoming military relationship between America and Bangladesh.
Earlier this month, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, met the prime minister of Bangladesh during his first visit there as PACOM chief. Early next year, U.S. and Bangladesh armed forces will co-host Shanti Dood 4, a multinational peacekeeping exercise, at the newly built Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operations Training
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka to the south is a focal point for China’s One Belt One Road, but the U.S. military has been stepping up its ties with the tiny nation that lies near a crucial trade route between the straits of Malacca and Hormuz.
Speaking at a maritime security conference in Sri Lanka in November, Harris said, “As the first American four-star officer to visit Sri Lanka in almost a decade, I’m pleased to see the strengthening of security ties between our countries.”
“The Indian Ocean matters to the United States,” he said. “Sri Lanka matters to the United States.”
In March, the fast-transport USNS Fall River visited Sri Lanka as the first stop in Pacific Partnership 2017, an annual exercise devoted to disaster-relief planning and building goodwill.