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Sri Lanka’s Involvement in US-led Red Sea Patrols: A Question Explored by The Diplomat

Speaking at an awards ceremony on January 3, the President of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, announced that the government would be deploying a navy vessel to the Red Sea to help defend shipping lanes. Wickremesinghe emphasized that the disruption of shipping lanes in the Red Sea would lead to increased freight charges and cargo costs, ultimately increasing import prices in the country. This decision was unexpected and was revealed only towards the end of his speech. Following the announcement, a feasibility study for the proposal was launched by the government. It was admitted that the cost of deploying a vessel would be 250 million Sri Lankan rupees ($775,000) every fortnight, and that the operation would require clear “logistics supplies” and “a robust weapon outfit” for it to be successful. Predictably, there was skepticism and condemnation of the move in social media and the press. Despite the criticism, the Navy has confirmed that multiple vessels will be sent to the region in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a United States-led multinational initiative to combat Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. The Houthis have vowed to continue until Israel ends its attacks on Palestine, and their attacks have forced cargo ships to reroute in the Red Sea. Sri Lanka’s decision to join the operation is surprising as it marks the first major military confrontation between the United States and the Houthi rebels. There have been geopolitical implications, with the U.S. and its allies justifying their intervention to protect international trade and shipping lines, while the Houthis are justifying their attacks as a show of solidarity with Palestine and Gaza. The U.S. allies have been relatively quiet about their involvement, and countries like India have deployed vessels to the region. Sri Lanka’s decision has left more questions than answers, especially due to the cost implications and the country’s capacity for such an operation. Despite the skepticism, the Sri Lankan Navy has been cooperating with the U.S. Navy for a long time, and this decision is in line with that cooperation. On the domestic front, the cost of the operation has been a major concern, especially as the country is still recovering from an economic crisis and sovereign debt default. Opposition to the proposal also stems from the view that it does not bring immediate benefit to Sri Lanka, and that the funds could be better used at home, especially for the military’s capabilities. The proposal has been seen as hypocritical given the government’s austerity measures at home. While there are views that the proposal could spur investments and opportunities for the country’s military, there are doubts about the manpower and capabilities of the Navy to undertake such a risky mission.

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