By Lakna Paranamanna/Ceylon Today
Colombo, October 15: Sri Lanka found itself in the middle of an open Sino-US confrontation last week, when US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz expressed concern over the current status of Sino-Sri Lanka relations. The Chinese took no time, nor minced words in responding to Ambassador Teplitz’s comments, which was described as a ‘despicable attempt’ to manipulate diplomatic relations between two nations.
This exchange is only a premonition of an unwarranted battle that Sri Lanka would find itself in the midst of, if we do not prudently distance ourselves from what is increasingly looking like a Churchill trap the US is laying for itself through reactionary moves against the rapidly rising power and influence of China regionally and globally.
This eventual clash of the titans over dominance in the Indian Ocean was a danger clearly foreseen by Sri Lankan leaders nearly half a century ago, when late Prime Ministers S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike advocated and led the non-aligned movement (NAM), which bore fruit at the 1970 NAM Lusaka Conference and the year after at the UN General Assembly when the Indian Ocean was declared for “all time as a zone of peace”.
In the 70s, the decision to remain non-aligned and the wish to ward off any global tensions from spilling into the Indian Ocean was largely a move against the growing naval expansion of the USSR in the Indian Ocean and its repercussions due to cold war tensions with the US. Regional agitations between neighbours, specifically the Indo-Pak scuffle, also offered strong incentive for Lankan leaders to remain non-aligned.
Five decades later, with all but a change of one player the same power game continues to unravel in the Indian Ocean. But this time, it’s in a far more complex and sensitive geopolitical setting amid greater vulnerabilities in the region strategically, economically and politically
What’s in it for Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka saw the visit of a high-powered Chinese delegation last week led by the Director of Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Yang Jiechi, which brought in a 90 million USD grant. Negotiations are also ongoing for a 700 million USD concessional loan from the China Development Bank, as Sri Lanka turned its back at least momentarily, on the US-led lender IMF to avoid default.
Hot on the heels of the Chinese delegation visit, local media reported US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s impending arrival in Sri Lanka. The competition leaves Sri Lanka at a crossroads – a decisive point that would involve major geopolitical repercussions for not just Sri Lanka but the region, for years to come.
For Sri Lanka, struggling to overcome economic hardships brought on by years of poor policy making and now the impacts of the pandemic, the assistance extended is music to ears. But deciding on which rescue line to cling on to will be a tough choice considering the strings attached. Right now, off the two sides of the equation, China remains the only ally willing to extend assistance with minimal conditions, which the current Government appreciates.
But Sri Lanka cannot also afford to completely disregard the overtures of the Quad members – US being the largest exporting market, India as our powerful neighbour who has pledged to always prioritise Sri Lanka under their ‘neighbourhood first’ policy and Japan, that has been a long time partner in development.
In some ways, Sri Lanka may be too far gone. The majority of development projects are increasingly being implemented with Chinese assistance. Meanwhile, the US awaits a decision on the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact and the Government abruptly calls off the Japan-funded Light Rail Transit. But Sri Lanka continues desperately to strike a balance – made evident with the Gazette issued announcing the appointment of an Indian Consul General whose purview includes four districts including Hambantota, Galle, Matara and Moneragala.
Sri Lanka’s lack of a decisive and comprehensive foreign policy particularly on the Indo-Pacific and the continuous reactionary, situation-driven decisions in response to Sino-US advances have pushed our little island between a rock and a hard place. The foreign policy decision making now more than ever, should attempt the impossible of striving to strike a balance between not just the US and China but also India, given India would have reservations of the US having a more than necessary foothold in their backyard.
Quad and impending security dilemma
The escalating Sino-US tensions appear determined to drag the bystanders into it and draw clear battle lines. Earlier last week (6 October) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Foreign Ministers of India, Japan and Australia, at the Ministerial meeting of the Quad – an alliance envisioned to become a mini-NATO – in Tokyo, to counter the ‘belligerence of China’. Despite the hype however, the grouping failed to so much as even release a joint statement as individual reservations came to the fore.
Current American foreign policy, although sceptical of multilateralism, has been quite invested in the Quad grouping quite obviously because it helps the US further legitimise and escalate their presence in the Indo-Pacific region. But the core vision of the grouping in itself poses quite a grave issue, considering the formation of a military alliance could prompt China to take pre-emptive countermeasures causing a security dilemma.
So the question remains, is it prudent for Sri Lanka to be in the midst of this power rivalry as the Quad tries to outdo China in wooing Sri Lanka into becoming an addition to their ‘island chain strategy’?
This is where strengthening the capabilities of the Sri Lanka Navy will play a key role and why the Maritime Strategy 2025 would need to be closely observed and fulfilled in order to meet the rising challenges. Sri Lanka needs to demonstrate we are ready and equipped with the necessary naval capabilities and readiness to bear the obligations of ensuring unfettered freedom of navigation through the Indian Ocean if a foreign presence and interference is to be countered.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a recent statement echoed Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s words, voicing his aspiration for the Indian Ocean to continue to remain a zone of peace. But it is imperative that Sri Lanka takes on the task of manoeuvring through tension armed with the reality at hand. It’s nothing short of naivety to think the power competition in the Indian Ocean will cease; the Indian Ocean cannot be removed from the global strategic map and is home to all the major sea lanes bridging the East and West, tying up global trade and security. Therefore, only a strategy that involves a long drawn plan that guarantees safety of Sri Lanka’s long-term strategic interests will enable us to come out of this crisis unscathed.