Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Is Sri Lanka China’s Georgia?

Seven years after 9/11, we’re in between world orders.

And winds of systemic change grip all nooks of the globe: the overstretch of America, geopolitical quicksand which is the Middle East, the benign growth of Brazil and Japan, rise of China and India, resurgence of Russia, expansion of EU and NATO, petrodiplomacy of Venezuela, nonviolent nuclear politics of Iran and North Korea.

In this changing world order, for whom is the geostrategic asset of Lanka more important: China or U.S.-India? If Eelam IV’s end date pushes well into 2009, is U.S.-India intervention plausible?

World order changes imply a post-Bush II America, in addition to continuing its “War on Terror” in the Middle East, will seek to reinvigorate its engagement policy toward Latin America and South Asia to counterbalance the economic and political expansion of the China-Russia axis in Europe and Central Asia. Projecting American power in South Asia is likely to lead to increased U.S.-India engagement in Lanka. This engagement would test where the economic and political interests of China in Lanka stand in relation to those of U.S.-India. The nature of engagement would pivot on the status and optics of the military solution by year’s end. If Colombo’s “final battle” isn’t won by then, a protracted victory intersecting with U.S.-India engagement will internationally politicize Eelam IV in ways which will not reverse Colombo’s drift into Western isolation on the international stage.

Changes in world order, and great power dynamics in Central Asia, Europe, and U.S.-China, demonstrate a possible emergence of a post-2009 international climate incentivizing American engagement in Latin America and South Asia, and thus Lanka.

The world order is increasingly post-American. The Asias are rising in places and ways the West is not. Multipolarity has arrived, but it is incipient, rudderless. Three dominant features characterize the current world order transition from American hegemony to multipolarity.

First, the rise of new powers is flattening out the hierarchical orders which followed the end of World War II and the Cold War. The contemporary butterfly effects triggered by the overstretch of America on one front and the rise of China on multiple fronts is altering the structures of global power distribution such that the historical grip of the West, its aid, its arms, its human rights/democracy based conditionality underpinning intervention logic has been loosened in the Developing World. This effect is most pronounced in the Afro-Asian region, in part due to its distance from, and ineffective or disinterested engagement by, the main political centers of power in the system: America, China, EU, Russia. (India is a regional political non-player, operating within U.S.-China geostrategic competition). Momentarily liberated from what was a U.S.-led neoliberal order, Afro-Asian states, like Lanka, have been able to seek new economic and political alignment in between the old world order led by America and the new emergent one heralded by the rising Asias.

Second, the space between world orders there is an evident vacuum of global leadership. Global leadership, vision, authority, and power have become diffuse, de-centered. This departs from the ideology-guided orders of American-Soviet bipolarity and post-Cold War American hegemony demarcating the eras flanking the fall of the Berlin Wall. America led globally in the post-Cold War world. Now it is overstretched. In the post-America vacuum, no rising power has stepped up to lead.

The attendant redistribution of political authority in the system has been unable to marshal global consensus on global issues. Recent examples are: EU’s Lisbon Treaty and Ireland, global nuclear non-proliferation policy (India, Iran, North Korea), collapse of the Doha rounds, the defunct Kyoto protocol and post-Kyoto framework talks, Darfur’s genocide, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, energy and food security, climate change and global warming, humanitarian responses to flooding in Bihar and Haiti and Burma, Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Global leaderlessness contributes to the international community’s non-engagement in Lanka’s war vis-à-vis its humanitarian dimension.

Third, the political economic dimension of global power has progressively bifurcated. In the transition to a new order, the world is increasingly defined by political unipolarity and economic multipolarity. Political unipolarity lingers from the shadow of post-Cold War American hegemony. Economic multipolarity has emerged due to globalization, the decline of the West, and rise of the rest.

The trend of economic multipolarity is particularly visible since the American hyperpower’s post-9/11 response and overstretch in Iraq and non-normative war. Since then, the international system has demonstrably multipolarized, with new centers of power emerging in the Developing World, namely: Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Mexico (BRICSAM), and ASEAN.

Underneath the poles of BRICSAM plus America, Japan, and the EU are a subsidiary tier, reaching from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia to Iran to Turkey to Nigeria, and many states in between. This subsidiary tier contributes to China’s rise and the erosion of the American political order, by for example providing arms and aid to states – like Lanka – that have learned that Western isolationism in multipolarity is negated by the “China option.”

A post-Bush II America will try to reestablish American primacy upon the global picture described above, within an international system characterized by global leaderlessness, de-centered political power, and multiple emergent centers of economic power. Developments in three regions, Central Asia, Europe, and the U.S.-China sphere, will pressure America towards consolidating its influence in Latin America and South Asia to counter the dissipation of its power elsewhere.

In Central Asia, over the past several years, U.S.-Russia divergence and China-Russia convergence have increasingly supplanted U.S. influence in the region. China-Russia convergence enjoys bottom-up support from the Central Asian states which have leaned towards the China-Russia politico-security umbrella since the end of the Cold War. It has also been institutionalized. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan,  Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, together form a multilateral tier of convergence. The SCO’s economic mandate, the CSTO’s political-military mandate as a post-Soviet security alliance, and the bottom-up support from Central Asian states, secures Central Asia within the China-Russia orbit, where American displacement of power is likely to increase as China-Russia cooperation does.

In Europe, American regional influence diminishes. Russia’s 5-day August invasion of territorial Georgia, though violating international law, was met with tepid international responses from America and the United Nations, ambivalence from Central Asia and China. In retrospect, the invasion and withdrawal conveyed Russia’s re-legitimatized paranoia that modern Europe’s changing Trans-Atlantic security architecture on some level still seeks to re-institutionalize Cold War bloc ideology in a post-9/11 world.

Also, Russian support of Abkhaz/South Ossetian independence could thaw other “frozen” independence struggles in the Caususes – Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino Balkariya, Tartarstan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transitrei. However, the Russia-Georgia crisis had little to do with self-determination, and much to do with Western encroachment in Russia’s backyard. From post-1991 to present, Russia has witnessed progressive Westernization of the post-Soviet European space. This includes: the post-Cold War democratization of the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the post-2003 Flower revolutions (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan), the 2005 American supported regime changes in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, the Eastward creep of post-Cold War NATO (Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Ukraine), the expansion of the EU (Croatia, Ukraine), international support for Kosovo self-determination despite Belgrade-Moscow opposition, and recent agreements to place American anti-ballistic missile shields in Czech Republic and Poland to protect Europe and American allies from a nuclear Iran.

Russian resurgence and Western impulses to isolate Russia in Europe will in confluence continue to polarize and consolidate exclusionary U.S.-EU and Russia-China alliances from Europe to Central Asia, steadily displacing American influence on the continent.

In the U.S.-China sphere, China is displacing American influence globally. Containing China’s multi-pronged projection of multidimensional power remains enigmatic to the West. And aware of American pretensions of containment, China has been smart in its growth model. It has created a financial architecture outside of the Bretton Woods system, relying predominantly on hub-and-spoke bilateral agreements, instead of being tied down in Western created multilateral frameworks. It has built alliances with Russia, Germany and the EU, Asia, East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Iran, India.

Furthermore, China’s maritime power is encroaching on America’s along sea lanes connecting China to energy resources in the Middle East and Africa. China has built a “string of pearls” through infrastructure projects, provision of military modernization, and diplomacy, extending territorially from mainland China to the South China Sea’s littorals, to the Indian Ocean, to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf littorals.

In the Indian Ocean region sensitive to Lankan security, between the straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca, the string of pearls links ports in Pakistan’s Gwadar to Lanka’s Hamabantota to Bangladesh’s Chittagong to Burma’s Sittwe. China’s investments in Africa are also likely to lead to coastal bases on the continent, to further diversify energy supply routes for its growing economy and energy needs.

However, China’s Indian Ocean presence may become problematic. For American maritime interests from Hormuz to Malacca, the “string of pearls” could mature into a noose of energy dependencies held in China’s palm. By 2030, BRIC economies are expected to eclipse the rich economies of Europe and North America, which will stress energy security equations of every status quo and rising power. While the global media fixates on diminishing American credibility and the Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran conundrum, China is economically crowding America out of Africa, the Asias, the trans-Pacific, and Latin America.

Overall, the overstretch of America, rise of China, and broad-based multipolarization of the global economic system has created a global leadership vacuum within the international system. The political economic developments in Central Asia, Europe, and within the U.S-China sphere, have in aggregate, weakened America’s influence globally. Since America will likely seek to re-establish its primacy and leadership role in the system, this trend makes Latin America and South Asia viable candidates for the re-projection of American power in the early months of a new Obama/McCain Presidency in 2009 to counter diminishing U.S. dominance in China-Russia spheres of influence.

America can project power elsewhere, but these regions have fewer impediments. Latin America is attractive because it’s in America’s hemispheric reach, with only Venezuela to isolate, and an eager ally in Brazil, the world’s 5th largest economy. South Asia is attractive because U.S.-India convergence would feed off China-India regional competition, making the projection of American power, directly, or via India, sustainable and in American and Indian self-interest. The recent U.S.-India nuclear deal and smaller developments like the Hindu-Muslim riots in Orissa, flooding in Bihar, if a pattern, are harbingers of a future bilateral climate conducive to cooperative efforts in global issues such as counter-terrorism and climate change.

Consequently, increased U.S.-India cooperation in South Asia will increase the probability of U.S.-India engagement in Lanka. If the Tiger’s defensive war and Colombo’s scant regard for human rights persist to 2009, a U.S.-India axis impelled to consolidate influence in South Asia via Lanka to balance the China-Russia factor in Europe and Central Asia becomes more probable. Because U.S.-India engagement would arise from great power competition more than political considerations towards Eelam IV or human rights, issues of Colombo’s acquiescence and Lankan sovereignty would be rendered peripheral.

U.S.-India would likely engage upon an anti-GoSL anti-LTTE platform promoting human rights and counter-terrorism, while endorsing that the protection of international humanitarian norms trumps sovereignty in certain cases. This plausible future is inherently dubitable. But a post-Bush II America will search for ways to re-establish itself as global leader. In this regard, the Lankan case is evocative for U.S.-Indian intervention which would also send a global message apropos Chinese expansion in South Asia.

Whether China will protect Colombo in this scenario remains unclear. The direction of Lanka’s human rights record, from the UNCHR rejection to the Defense Secretary’s recent request for removal of NGOs, INGOs, and the UN from the Northern theatre, is less so. Whether or not U.S.-India will engage, Eelam IV and its human rights albatross will likely qualify Lanka by 2009 as a place for U.S.-India engagement on humanitarian grounds, even in violation of Lankan sovereignty. U.S.-India engagement policy with Lanka would also test whether states like China, Iran, and Pakistan, will support Lanka not only in aid and arms, but also politically, in standing up against powers like the U.S., India.

America abandoned Georgia when Russia invaded.

What will Beijing do if U.S.-India engage on the island in 2009?

Is Lanka China’s Georgia?

Or is the China-Lanka alliance more than just an economic, military, and geostrategic marriage of convenience?