We want China to be transparent in its intent– US Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson
By Rathindra Kuruwita
China should be more transparent with its intentions and countries like Sri Lanka must be cautious when coming into agreements like One Belt One Road initiative, US Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson, Commander Logistics Group Western Pacific and Task Force 73, who is in Sri Lanka for the Galle Dialogue, told Ceylon Today.
You are in Sri Lanka to take part in Galle Dialogue: International Maritime Conference. What were the areas you focused on during your presentation?
The topic that I am here to talk about is maritime cooperation, essentially the need for the nations and navies in the region to understand that working together at the maritime domain will be of great benefit to all. So I was a mediator in a panel this year talking about sea blindness, an inability to appreciate the central role the oceans and naval power have played in securing our strategic security and economic prosperity.
Sri Lanka Navy and the US Pacific Fleet conducted the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Exercise – 2017 last week in Trincomalee. This is the latest in a number of joint naval exercises you had with us recently. What are the main areas you are working on to develop Sri Lanka Navy?
A. The US and the Sri Lanka Navy militaries have been working together for several years and we are very excited and proud about that working relationship. Sri Lanka has a very capable and experienced military leadership and you have very good values. We have similar views on how to work together and benefit from our relationship.
But I must admit that this relationship has been growing quickly recently. Just two years ago we only had about five naval exercises with our Sri Lankan counterparts. This year I am confident we will have more than 20, which is a big change in two years.
Each year we get together at a staff level and senior staff level and we decide on priorities and ideas for things that are mutually beneficial. One of the great strengths of the Sri Lankan military is the experience of its leadership. It is also very professional and has a good understanding of how things are shaping up in the region.
For the most part we work on at the ship to ship level, we work on the ability to maintain an awareness of what is happening out there on the sea, how to share information, and how to make decisions about limited information that you get and how to do very practical things like boarding ships and how to go out and maintain your training levels between your crews and different people.
Each year on a ship you have some fraction of the people who are new. Therefore you can benefit from the same kind of training each year because you don't have the same people. You can do the same exercise with new people each year. So there is benefit to that. So we work on things that turn out to be very beneficial for the kinds of security operation which Navy and coast guards do every day like counter piracy, tackling human trafficking and smuggling.
We also attempt to share our knowledge on how to understand what is really happening on the sea and to have the ability to influence and control those activities. I think that these kinds of things benefit our strategic relationship.
The US Navy has also done a lot of humanitarian and disaster relief work in Sri Lanka?
A: Yes, we do humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training activities with each other every year. A few months ago we had the Pacific Partnership in Hambantota which is an annual deployment of forces from the Pacific Fleet of the United States Navy (USN), in cooperation with regional governments and military forces, along with humanitarian and non-government organizations.
And it turned out that after a few months of Pacific Partnership there were serious flooding in the area. USS Lake Erie was nearby when disaster struck and we were able to go in and lend a hand and we were very proud to come in and help, the sailors really enjoyed being with the Sri Lankan people and to do something, I think that the local community was very happy to have that help. We hope that it was very beneficial for the people and the relationship.
Our goal is to do things that benefit Sri Lanka, the things that we do here are not for us, it is for you, and therefore we want to improve the conditions and the capabilities of your country. We also benefit from the preservation of the rules based system the world has operated under for the last seven decades. That has benefitted many countries and Sri Lanka is a great example of a country that has benefitted from this.
Another outcome of such exercises is developing peer to peer relations. How important is this for you?
Q: As military leaders it is important for us to be able to respond to sudden developments and share information immediately because many of the challenges and threats that we face aren't restricted by borders and or care about timelines. Most crises happen without warning and we need to have the ability to almost literally flip the switch to share the information and to operate together. So exercises like Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT), Pacific Partnership and other exercises we do to build relationships and trust among colleagues enable that. I have friends now through my interactions with the Sri Lanka Navy that I can call on the phone or we can get on WhatsApp or Viber or whatever app there is to use, and we do that from time to time to say hello. And if something happens we can get business done very quickly because we know each other and trust each other.
You spoke about the rules based system that has benefitted everyone. But it is obvious that this system is being challenged by China. How do you view this?
Q: China is looking to benefit China from everything it tries to do. And that is something very country should think about when they work with China. You have to work with them, we work with them. We welcome their participation and we have interactions with the Chinese military each year. These are important things to do as countries because the root of misunderstanding is people not knowing each other. You need to have personal exposure and experience.
China has also benefitted greatly, maybe more than anyone else from the existing system that it attempts to change now. So for US the motives behind this is a bit of a mystery. If you look at initiatives like OBOR or Maritime Silk Road, the challenge for us is to understand what that is about. Where is that going to go, who benefits from that? So, I think that's worth asking and exploring, especially as you approach new kind of deals and opportunities. These opportunities are important and you have to have them. Your people deserve hope and the country needs investments. But the people don't deserve to be shackled in the future either. The United States wants Sri Lanka to benefit and prosper.
So are you concerned about the role of China in Sri Lanka?
A: We also have interaction with the Chinese military each year. They participate in our RIMPAC, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, which is the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise and we have other kinds of exercises. The US does not feel threatened by China's interaction with any country. We just want China to be transparent in its purpose and intent. We want China to participate in the system that is there for everyone's benefit and not to change it to benefit them alone.
As I said before we want China to participate in a system that benefits everyone and not to engineer the system that works for China's benefit alone. We welcome China's participation because we have great respect for China and what it has accomplished.
We have no problem of them being a global power; we just want China to be responsible.
Our Navy has a lot of experience in counter insurgency but the challenges it now faces are different. In your opinion what are the major challenges Sri Lanka face in the maritime domain?
A: I think the biggest challenge is to understand that the role of the sea is changing. Controlling seas have always been important but this control was mainly to influence what took place on the land. But for the first time in human history the value of the sea is not just about supporting or influencing what happens on the land. Now we have the ability to control and extract what is in the sea and what is under the sea floor and now we are at a place where controlling the sea for the sake of controlling resources has become more important.
So the role of the Navy and coast guard is important to know who is out there, what they are doing, whether they belong there, whether you want what they do to continue and whether you can influence them or stop it. That role is very different from what we have been doing traditionally. Your Navy has a tremendous amount of experience in counter insurgency and vary highly respected. I have learned a lot from your Navy, I admire them for their toughness and I admire their skill and I think we have a lot to share. The biggest thing we offer the Sri Lanka Navy is to share our knowledge about the changing character of what we have to do now as Navies.
The strategic importance of the location of Sri Lanka is known to everyone. You all understand that because you have been here thousands of years and I don't want to pretend to offer insights to your value to the world. The US wants Sri Lanka to maximize its return to its value to the world.
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