482. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Sri Lankan Finance Minister’s Call on the Secretary

Sri Lankan Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel met with the Secretary February 29 as special envoy of President Jayewardene. Meeting lasted 30 minutes. De Mel was unaccompanied. Howard Schaffer, NEA/INS Director, was notetaker.

De Mel recalled that Jayewardene’s government had adopted a pragmatic and practical policy in many areas, including the economy, which had successfully grown as a result. The time had now come for it to be more practical and pragmatic in its foreign policy. It had studied with great care President Carter’s State of the Union message, particularly the reference to the US’ desire to cooperate with the states of the South Asian region.2 The GSL had decided to respond positively to the President’s invitation.

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While Sri Lanka would remain in the non-aligned movement and “basically non-aligned”, it now wished to play a different role in the area. As a small country equally friendly with all regional states, it could play a useful role in working out some form of consultative process among them in the face of Soviet aggression. This would include efforts to improve relations between the South Asian countries, especially between India and Pakistan. President Jayewardene was prepared to take the initiative, de Mel said. The Secretary said he was pleased that Sri Lanka was prepared to play such a catalytic role at this time, and noted that it was particularly well qualified to do so.

De Mel said there was a second, more difficult aspect to the GSL’s new approach. The GSL had made a decision to work in closer association with the US than it had in the past. While the form that the implementation of this decision would take had still to be evolved, he could say that Sri Lanka was prepared to be responsive to the President’s State of the Union message statement (which he quoted) regarding the US “pursuing the possibility of gaining access to military facilities in the region in time of trouble.” He could tell the Secretary in confidence that in the event of open confrontation Sri Lanka would have “only one friend, the United States.” It was prepared to give the US access to naval and other facilities in such an event. (de Mel did not specifically mention US-Soviet open confrontation but from the context of his discussion it is clear that that is what he meant. He later told Schaffer that the Sri Lankan offer specifically included use of the port of Trincomalee.)

De Mel said that it was very important that the offer be kept secret. (Comment: He is dead right. A leak could be very damaging to the Jayewardene government. End Comment.)

The Secretary stated that the Sri Lankan decision was a very important one. He said the President—to whom he would relay it at once—would appreciate it and find it of great significance.

De Mel said that in coming to its decision to change its foreign policy approach the GSL had taken many aspects into consideration. He sought to link the move to take a more active role in the area with the decision to become more closely associated with the US. By seeking to bring about better understanding among the regional countries and encouraging “common thinking”, Sri Lanka could make them more understanding of its policy of closer friendship with the US.

De Mel touched on the Sri Lankan approach to the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace. Noting that Sri Lanka is chairman of the UN ad hoc committee, he said the GSL would have to continue to make noises [Page 1098] there.3 He noted that Jayewardene does not believe that the IOZP concept is a feasible proposition. There must be a balance of power in the Indian Ocean area, and this balance must include the land forces stationed in the region. In this connection, he said that the only way that the Soviet drive toward warm water ports could be dealt with was through counter-balancing naval forces in the Indian Ocean.

The Secretary said that we had hoped three years ago to be able to limit naval forces in the area. It is now necessary for us to maintain an over-the-horizon naval force to balance the Soviets. We had told the Soviets that there was no longer a basis for continued discussion of the reduction of naval forces in the Indian Ocean until circumstances change in that part of the world.4

De Mel said that Jayewardene also wished to convey to the President and the Secretary his favorable reaction to the President’s State of the Union message statement about the importance of steady growth of US economic assistance to the South Asian countries. He spoke of the difficulties world-wide inflation has caused for Sri Lanka’s development plans. Citing Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions, human rights record, pragmatic economic programs and stability, he urged that the US do what it can in providing increased assistance to help Sri Lanka meet inflation-induced shortfalls. De Mel gave the Secretary a copy of a letter he had brought from Jayewardene to the President which focused on this.5 He also urged greater US private investment in Sri Lanka.

De Mel made no specific mention of Jayewardene’s plan to call a meeting of regional countries to appeal for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.6 He told Schaffer afterwards that if the President [Page 1099] responded favorably to the message he had passed to the Secretary, the GSL would be prepared to send emissaries to other South Asian states. He did not say what their specific mission would be.7

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Thornton Country File, Box 97, Sri Lanka: Presidential Correspondence: 1/80–1/81. Secret; Nodis.
  2. In his January 21 State of the Union message to Congress, Carter proposed that the United States help South Asian countries “develop a capability to withstand Soviet pressures in a strengthened framework for cooperation in the region. We want to cooperate with all the states of the region in this regard—with India and Pakistan, with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.” Carter noted: “We are also pursuing the possibility of gaining access to military facilities in the region in time of trouble. We are prepared to work closely with our friends in the region, on a cooperative basis, to do whatever is required to ensure that aggressors would bear heavy costs so that further aggression is deterred.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1980–81, Book I, pp. 171–172) See also Document 16.
  3. Sri Lanka chaired the UN Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZP) Ad Hoc Committee, which promoted demilitarization of the Indian Ocean. Also on the committee were representatives from Mozambique, Madagascar, and Indonesia. Telegram 142646 to USUN, May 31, transmitted an interagency-approved scope paper that provided background on the IOZP: “The proposal to turn the Indian Ocean into a zone of peace originated in a 1971 UN resolution sponsored by Sri Lanka. In 1972, an ad hoc committee was set up to prepare the way for implementation of an IOZP, and work has proceeded slowly toward that goal ever since. Until recently, we refused to join the committee because substantively we opposed the concept itself and tactically we saw little danger of the committee’s work producing tangible results. Last year, however, this picture changed. The committee finally set a date for an IOZP conference (1981), and its membership was substantially widened to include the Soviet Union and several major maritime users—including many of our NATO allies.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800266–0477)
  4. For documentation on U.S. efforts to promote arms limitation in the Indian Ocean, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XVIII, Middle East Region; Arabian Peninsula. U.S.-Soviet discussions on the issue were suspended in February 1978.
  5. See Document 483.
  6. See Document 481.
  7. In a March 1 memorandum to Carter, Vance summarized his meeting with De Mel and noted: “The decisions taken by Sri Lanka are a major change of position on their part.” Carter initialed Vance’s memorandum. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 23, Evening Reports (State): 3/80)