By Skandha Gunasekara
Retired Senior US Naval Officer and CEO and President of the EastWest Institute Dr. William J. Parker III revealed that US agreements such as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) have had administrative issues in other countries where US personnel based there have engaged in criminal activities.
Below are excerpts of his interview with The Sunday Morning
First off, how familiar are you with Sri Lanka? How many times have you visited us before?
I have been to Sri Lanka four times before. I started here as a military officer and then came back working with the US Government and now, I’m here in my capacity as the CEO of the EastWest Institute.
On this visit, whom have you met in the Government?
I just finished meeting with your Foreign Affairs Minister and I’m to meet your President. We had a conference and met up with people from Sri Lanka, Germany, Maldives, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. It was a regional discussion on water and water security – which is what we were focused on. We met with your chief of naval operations while we were here and that was a great discussion.
Apart from water security and disaster management, what else did you discuss?
The major focus was on water security and disaster management but of course whenever you’re talking about those issues you end up talking about the geopolitics that comes along with that.
The Easter Sunday terror attacks got global attention. Nearly one year later, are you satisfied with Sri Lanka’s security response?
I think that Sri Lanka is working very hard to get a stable environment set here not just for the security side of the house but also for the coronavirus. Look at how it’s being dealt with here – very aggressively – which is good. You are one of the first four countries to fly into the Wuhan region of China to get your people back – which is pretty commendable. You brought 33 of your students back here, you quarantined them and did all the right processes – so there is a serious effort going on not just to have physical security from terrorism but also to ensure the safety of your people through clean water which has a lot of initiatives out there and also to counter this coronavirus.
How much vigilance is required? What more could be done?
Well, I think there is significant vigilance required when you’re talking about both physical security against terrorism and security against any sort of medical issue like threats of the coronavirus. But it’s not just that, it is also the threats of influenza, of water borne diseases – so clean drinking water is a very important effort to have here as well as countering coronavirus.
As an island, is Sri Lanka at an advantage with regard to terrorist elements and strengthening national security?
I think you have an advantage and a disadvantage. I think the advantage is that you are separated as an island but the disadvantage is that you have to have an understanding of who was entering your island from 360 degrees, which can make it more difficult in some ways. So your Navy must be more prepared and your Air Force must be more prepared to identify who is coming by boat which is not always simple. It’s not always the threat of terrorism but also the threat of what kind of diseases they are brining; it’s also the threat of narcotics coming into your country. So it is an advantage and disadvantage.
Compared to a country such as the US, Sri Lanka’s defence capability as well as its defence budget is miniscule. In that context, how vulnerable is Sri Lanka?
Look at the fact that Sri Lanka is about half the size of the state of Florida. Sri Lanka’s population is just slightly larger than the population of New York City. So when you compare, you’re really talking about two very different types of countries and so I think it is important to have relations with not just internal when it comes to security but also the external relationships that you have with your neighbours and with your larger global neighbours.
So the relationship with the US is important, the relationship with your regional partners is important not just for physical security but also for these other issues that we are talking about, including the economy.
Do you think the Sri Lankan military is sufficiently technologically equipped to combat global terrorism?
I think that there are a very few countries in the world right now who are sufficiently equipped o counter terrorism because it is such a complex event now. By that I mean that you not only have to counter physical events like the bombings that you had on Easter Sunday but you also have to have the ability to counter cyber attacks, you also have to have the ability to counter weapons of mass destruction and so it requires a great deal of money and great deal of focus to get this right. The other challenge is that the terrorists only have to get it right one time where your security forces have to get it right every time.
So the simple thing of the person that is in the front of a hotel that is looking at screening luggage when people come in – are they doing their job properly? That is just as important as the complex, technical equipment that you have in the area. So in many ways it is more about training than it is about equipment.
What level of co-operation is there currently between the US and Sri Lanka in terms of security and defence?
If you look at your Navy – one of your ships came from the US. There is obviously an embassy here where we co-ordinate very closely with Sri Lanka on a variety of issues including intelligence sharing when necessary. There are also offers of support on both sides. Sri Lanka has much to offer the globe as well. You need only look at how this country has dealt with the coronavirus – this is something the rest of the globe can watch and realise that there is a lesson learnt on how to do it properly. So it’s not really a one-way relationship.
Apart from the coronavirus, as you just said, what can Sri Lanka offer to the world when it comes to combating global terrorism?
I think one thing is to ensure that there’s not home-grown terrorism happening here that is exported to the rest of the globe. That is one of the areas your Government is very focused on – looking at terrorism internally.
Secondly, I think it’s important to look at the transfer of not only illicit narcotics but also the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to ensure that those do not propagate throughout the globe.
Is there potential for improvement in the relations between Sri Lanka and the US?
There is always room for improvement when you’re talking about either friends or allies. In this particular case, we are working through several issues to include the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact). We are talking about other issues including clean water – when talking about the environment; we are talking about issues of the coronavirus which we talked about before; we are working through issues of illicit drugs and the transfer of illicit drugs globally. So that is something we are trying to improve between our countries as well.
Is Sri Lanka becoming a geopolitical battleground for world super powers such as the US and China?
I don’t think it’s a political battleground. I think what you have here is this beautiful country with people that are well educated in a critical part of the globe that have the opportunity to choose where their future is going to go as a country and as a people. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a political battleground.
Conversely, I think it’s an opportunity for your economy to grow, for your security to continue to improve, and for your relations with the rest of the globe to continue to improve.
You spoke of home-grown terrorism before. How vulnerable do you think Sri Lanka is this?
I would say that Sri Lanka, like the rest of the world, is always vulnerable to home grown terrorism and it’s a matter of how you respond to it. Whether you’re talking about the US, China, Russia, or anywhere else in the globe, it’s a challenge right now. We’ve seen it again in Europe and we’ve seen it in our own country. So I think vulnerability is something that sadly impacts everybody around the globe.
I wouldn’t say that you’re more vulnerable than other countries or less vulnerable. But I will say how you deal with it is critical; to find that balance, not limiting people’s rights to free speech, people’s rights to have a safe life, but at the same time to ensure the security of your general population is taken care of. So to me, that is a much better balance and from what I can tell, Sri Lanka has worked pretty hard to get that balance right.
With your naval background, how important is Sri Lanka’s Navy to its national security?
I think if it’s not the most, it would certainly be up there along with intelligence – and I say that intelligence provides you with the information necessary for your Navy to go out and respond. So your Navy/Coast Guard’s ability to both protect its citizens against the environment itself and then against those that wish you harm, I think is absolutely critical; to have not only the right sized navy and the right equipment, but probably the most important part again goes back to training and I had the opportunity to talk with your chief of naval operations yesterday.
When it comes to Sri Lanka-US relations, there has been a lot of opposition to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact in Sri Lanka. What are the countries that have previously received this grant and have benefited without any negative impact on their sovereignty?
I have not tracked all the countries that have done this compact with the MCC, so I’m not sure on those details.
Going back to geopolitics, how do you see China’s influence over Sri Lanka, especially with them controlling a major port in the South?
You know it is interesting when you look at the Belt and Road Initiative and you look at these efforts. China is a growing economy and has more and more influence over the globe but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily a threat to the rest of the world. It just means they’re gaining more control. I think that any time a nation cedes control of a major port to another country, it is not the best thing for their own sovereignty. So personally, I think you should do your very best to control those ports yourself as opposed to having others control it because it is not just a security issue, it also becomes an economic issue if you don’t have control of your own port.
You say that China has infringed upon Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by taking control of a port, but aren’t clauses in the MCC compact giving US officials and personnel immunity from local laws, even if they commit a crime, a threat to our sovereignty as well?
What it’s not doing is it is not giving a major port, whether it’s a sea port or an airport, or another major transportation hub to another country. What it is doing is saying that there’s an agreement between two countries on how you would share resources, whether those are economic or otherwise.
Again, aren’t US officials having immunity for taking part in a development project, an infringement upon our sovereignty? Why is there such a clause?
There are officials in the US that are not US citizens that have immunity as well. There is diplomatic immunity, there are other immunities that are shared between countries based on treaties and agreements so this is not something new. When you’re talking about the military operating, you have the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) – so there are various agreements that are signed between countries.
From a US military standpoint, could you briefly explain the Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement (ACSA) and the SOFA?
The Status of Forces Agreement basically says that if you have military forces operating in another country – because you have an agreement, if there is a major legal issue concerning US military personnel in that country, that would be turned over to the US and they would deal with the legal issue. I can tell you that the US Government takes this very seriously and its military personnel are trained and held to a very high standard when they are in another country.
Does the US have a similar agreement with Japan?
We do. We have Status of Forces Agreements around the globe and I’ve actually served in Japan where there is one in effect.
But aren’t there a lot of issues in Japan over US military personnel stationed there engaging in various criminal activities?
Yes, when you have an organisation with millions of personnel, which the US Military has, you’re always going to have some administrative issues – whether they’re legal issues or otherwise – but overall the relationship between the US military and the country of Japan is extremely strong and very close.
President Trump is following a very non-interventionist policy in terms of global military engagements which is a departure from the usual US policy. Do you see this as a positive or a negative?
I don’t speak for the Trump administration. However, what I’m seeing is that the US continues to fund more of the UN than any other country, the US continues to support globally on issues that matter not only to the US but to the globe – security issues on the economy, etc. Remember that a strong global economy is not good not just for the US but for the entire globe. A strong counter-terrorism programme is good not just for the US but the entire globe. So I think what you’re seeing is a country which has been at war now for almost 20 years, when you go back through Afghanistan post 9/11; and so it is time to bring some of those troops home and a lot of people feel very strongly about that. America’s sons and daughters have been fighting for a very long time overseas. So there is an effort to bring some of them home and to not spend that much money on these kinds of efforts as well.
President Trump also said that the US should not be the global police. Do you agree with this considering the fact that a lot of US global influence has been built on that ideology?
I think that the US continues to be that shining beacon on the hill, if you will. I think that you will see that when it matters, very often, that it is the US that is there. But we can’t do it alone. These are global efforts that require interactions between not just the US but the rest of the globe on a variety of issues – whether it is the environment, national security issues, weapons of mass destruction, you need only look at the efforts that are ongoing around the globe right now from North Korea to Afghanistan to the Middle East from countering illicit narcotics to countering illegal migration of children to see that the US continues to work on these issues and I think will continue to for the foreseeable future.
Dr. William J. Parker III is the CEO and President of the EastWest Institute. Parker is a retired senior US Naval Officer who commanded three warships, and later, a squadron of warships. He was the 2009 recipient of the Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership. He served as the Chief of Staff for US Naval Surface Forces. In addition to multiple combat tours, he held the post of Senior Advisor and Strategist with US Embassies in Iraq and Pakistan.