Photo courtesy of Times of India

Within weeks of each other, the Chinese Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State visited Sri Lanka, underscoring our importance in the geostrategic struggle for power in the Indian Ocean or if the US would have its say, Indo-Pacific region.

On the one side is China, whose ruling party has been held up by one of our dynasts as the prime example to be emulated and the simple fact that the Chinese have cash like no one else and have already embedded themselves – Port City, Hambantota et al – debt trap or not, in the Sri Lankan economy.  On the other side is the US, the leading member of the Quad along with India, Japan and Australia. The US is by far our largest single market with exports of US$ 3.1 billion in 2019 and US$ 1.1 billion for the last six Covid-19 riven months, as well as a source of bilateral developmental assistance spanning the seventy- two years of diplomatic relations. Currently it is offering Sri Lanka the Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC), an outright grant of US$ 480 million in the areas of traffic management and land which the local nationalist lobby allege should be together with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACAS) as constituting a major infringement of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and her fully paid up subscription to the anti-China alliance. In the context of the heated competition between the two powers, the US and China, the US also points to a shared common tradition of democracy with Sri Lanka. In this respect, whilst this competition is about the hard indices of military strategic power, it is very much about the ideological congruence of values and beliefs that cement relationships over decades.

Rhetorically, diplomatic niceties have been dispensed with. When the Chinese Foreign Minister visited, the US Ambassador issued a statement on the self -interested nature of China’s relations with Sri Lanka and the adverse repercussions this would have for Sri Lanka. The Chinese retorted with accusations about the US unprecedentedly intervening in Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations in flagrant violation of diplomatic protocols. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lost no time in referring to China as a predator and specifically referred to the Covid-19 pandemic as having come from Wuhan, China. Where does this leave Sri Lanka?

The answer is that we need both China and the US – one for diplomatic protection and cash and the other for its markets, at the very least.

Through the previous Rajapaksa regime’s grandiose delusions and profligacy as well as seeming inability and demonstrable unwillingness to address human rights violations and reconciliation sincerely, our diplomatic and economic dependence on China increased considerably. The Sirisena–Wickremesinghe attempt to rectify this came up against the hard reality of having to pay back well beyond our means and therefore resulted in further embedding the Chinese stake in our economy. Debt owed to China ended up as assets owned by China.   On the diplomatic front, the UN Human Rights Council was the furthest level Sri Lanka would go in the UN and indeed anywhere else with respect to accountability, given the protective Chinese presence. In March of next year, China will once again play this role of protector and defender when Resolution 30/1 comes up for final debate. Moreover, from the Port City to the Hambantota Port, Chinese investment is crucial to us moving forward in terms of development. And there is the rest of the US$ 700 million of the US$ 1.2 billion from the China Development Bank for Covid-19 relief.

The US is our key trading partner and is in partnership with India and the Maldives in the region, not to mention the other Quad members, Japan and Australia. A Joe Biden victory on November 3 will signal a return to US leadership in international affairs and greater engagement in multilateral fora like the Human Rights Council, although it is not a voting member. On the one hand the US will woo us to become a fully paid up member of the anti-China alliance and on the other, they will remind about human rights and the international obligations Sri Lanka is obliged to fulfil. Shavendra Silva may not be able to travel, for some time at least. Playing one against the other will not quite work, even if we do have the skill to do so.

Presumably Secretary Pompeo wanted to know about our intentions regarding the MCC and other agreements; when will we sign or will we not? Are there alternative ways of demonstrating goodwill towards the US without upsetting the Chinese outright? Likewise, it would be safe to assume that the Chinese would like a clear and unequivocal message of our refusal to accept the MCC and sign up to SOFA and ACAS.

Much has been made about non-alignment and our fidelity towards the concept in international relations. Our Foreign Secretary has declared that we have an India–first foreign policy, which is also neutral. The President apparently stressed our neutrality to the Secretary of State, as did our Foreign Minister.  As a student of International Relations at the LSE, I would have to answer questions about the difference, if any, between neutrality and non-alignment. The answer was that neutrality was passive and it treated all alike whereas non-alignment was positive and pro-active against alignment which, in the context of the Cold War, meant the military alliances of the two Superpowers. It was firmly anti-colonial in orientation and therefore tended towards the Soviet and socialist bloc of countries as the stories of Nehru and Chou En-lai on the one side and Sir John on the other at the founding Bandung Conference in 1955, will attest. It traced its ideological origins to the Sino-Indian relationship and the Five Principles of Panch Seel or Coexistence.

The issue then is our effective capitulation to the combination of soft and hard power that the US holds and that of the primarily soft power of the Chinese through economic leverage. To the extent that foreign policy is in effect “intermestic” – combining international and domestic factors – there is considerable, if exaggerated, anti-Western and anti-US sentiment in the country and in the Rajapaksa two-third majority in particular, in comparison to the lukewarm response to the Chinese and the allegations of the debt trap. This corresponds to the political preferences of the Rajapaksa constituency – heirs of the 56 revolution and remnants of the left – as opposed to the politically liberal and arguably more technically informed. Likewise the national interest, to the extent that such a conflation of goals and aspirations still applies to international relations in the 21st century.

Has the Government ever explicitly stated the relationship of MCC, SOFA and ACAS to what it sees as the national interest of Sri Lanka?  Similarly with the Chinese, has our national interest here been born exclusively out of necessity?

In the first Rajapaksa era we effectively divided the country up between India and China in terms of developmental assistance; first refusal to the Indians north of Vavuniya and to the Chinese, south of Vavuniya. And the sea? The US and the Quad?

In January 2021 a new, probably Biden Administration takes office in Washington DC and in March 2021 the debate on Resolution 30/1 will commence at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. At the same time and beyond, economic recovery from Covid-19 will be at the top of the day-to-day policy agenda. Either China is going to back-stop us to the full or an IMF loan will be inevitable.

Is signing the US agreements after March and focusing on a rule based regime for cooperation and competition in the Indian Ocean thereafter the best option for the Rajapaksa regime, while in the meantime, leaning on China for economic assistance? Weerawansa, Gammanpila and the remnant left will make noise and so will the members of the Sangha who claim with more than some credit of having brought this government to power and into office.

That last battle may well be the regime’s last. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is arguably our most pro-US President. However, he is a President without a political party; the SLPP is his brothers’ and it comes with a baggage of all the ultra-nationalist and left of centre bias, prejudice and sentiments of over sixty years ago. He has milked anti-US sentiment of its political capital and won the presidency and a two-third majority in Parliament as a result. He has allowed the most fantastic and unfounded claims to be made against the MCC and not uttered a word against them, while at the same time, with reference to the Chinese debt trap, declaring our independence to Pompeo.

Do his authoritarian, militaristic and majoritarian proclivities have any traction in the field of international relations beyond the grandiose proclamations of independence and sovereignty?

Viyath Maga, surely a policy is needed.