Photo courtesy of Asia Times

Over the course of October Sri Lanka welcomed two of the world’s prominent powers, China and the US, to the country. In early October, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa held talks with Yang Jiechi, a senior diplomat and a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). This was the first diplomatic visit Sri Lanka entertained since overseas travel restrictions were imposed worldwide due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hot on the heels of the visit by the Chinese delegation came top US diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In order to ascertain the interests of the US visit to Sri Lanka, this article is divided into three sections: first, the US policy in the Indo-Pacific; second, the China factor; and third Sri Lanka’s future in the Indian Ocean.

The US policy in the Indo-Pacific

The term Indo-Pacific was in the literature for almost a decade before President Donald Trump commenced using it officially in his administration. Since then, the Department of Defense and the Department of State have launched two documents pertaining to the Indo-Pacific, namely the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region in June 2019 and A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision in November 2019. This is an indication of  the US government’s interest in the Indo-Pacific region.

The term Indo-Pacific is an expansion of the area that was previously known as Asia-Pacific. Now instead of recognising only one continent and an ocean space, Indo-Pacific acknowledges the importance and the roles of the two oceanic regions of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. It further recognises that it is no longer correct to think of the South Asian and East Asian regions separately. In doing so, the concept has amalgamated the countries, the people, the resources and the geopolitical interests of the two ocean spaces. This showcases that the concept of the Indo-Pacific has geographically expanded the regional understanding and reoriented from an economic perspective to a security-based agenda, thereby amplifying the discourse on the securitised nature of the region.

In integrating States and their interests, there is a very clear demarcation of which countries in the region the US is working with. Thus, there is a serious consideration of the formation of regional groupings, predominantly against the interests of one particular country in the region, which in this case is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). President Donald Trump indicated the following when he first used the term Indo-Pacific during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit held in Vietnam in November 2017:

“The story of the Indo-Pacific in recent decades is the story of what is possible when people take ownership of their future…this region has emerged as a beautiful constellation of nations, each its own bright star, satellites to none.”

When analysing this statement, it can be observed that Trump was referring to one particular country, China, and hinting that the countries in the Asia-Pacific should not be governed by the interests of well-to-do economies in the region and instead should determine their own futures. The coinage and the use of the term Indo-Pacific enables the US to be more actively involved in the region and increase the securitised nature of the region.

China factor

Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka cannot be discussed or analysed without taking the China factor into consideration. This is mainly for three reasons: first, the bilateral tug-of-war the two countries are predominantly engaged in from an economic perspective; second, the US’s perceived interests in the Indo-Pacific and Sri Lanka; and third, the fact that the US visit was organised immediately after the Chinese visit.

The bilateral economic tug-of-war between US and China has been going on for over two years, with both parties introducing new tariff mechanisms on the other. As two of the strongest economies in the world, this behaviour has had ripple effects on most other economies. It has negatively affected global trade, as many economies are reliant on China and the US. Therefore, both these two countries are attempting to increase the parties they can work with on economic matters, thereby increasing their economic foothold.

Next, it is no secret that the Americans are apprehensive of the increased power wielded by China in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Therefore, there are increasing fears in Washington that they are fast losing out on key areas and partners in the Indo-Pacific to Beijing. American apprehensions in the Indian Ocean are further fuelled by India, which dislikes the role China is playing in the Indian Ocean, especially with India’s Southern neighbour, Sri Lanka. These aspirations and insecurities in the Indo-Pacific, therefore, prompted the visit to Sri Lanka.

Finally, when considering the China factor vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, the recent visit by the senior Chinese diplomat to Sri Lanka during the pandemic when international travel was restricted was an eye opener to the US that had thus far not prioritised Sri Lanka. The Chinese visit was a strong indicator that this government was maintaining close relationships with the Chinese government.

Sri Lanka’s future in the Indian Ocean

Sri Lanka is embroiled in a power rivalry in the Indian Ocean similar to the 1970s. Once again, the lion is required to balance the dragon, the eagle and the elephant, who are attempting to utilise the strategic location afforded to Sri Lanka for their own advantage, in the Indian Ocean.

This is not the first time the US has indicated that it is keen on working with Sri Lanka; the rhetoric has been maintained since Sri Lanka gained independence and America’s “friendship” status has been reiterated many times over. The US, for its part, has indicated how it considers that Sri Lanka is strategically situated in a favourable location that is of significance to American interests. Accordingly, it is these interests that Sri Lanka should be mindful of, as it needs to maintain its sovereign position in international relations.

This also brings the discussion on the Indo-Pacific to the forefront. The US has understood that it has ill-managed relations with Sri Lanka and it should, in the future, work closely with Sri Lanka in implementing its Indo-Pacific strategy. Added to this are the interests of security groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) whose member states maintain good relations with Sri Lanka. Therefore, having Sri Lanka as a partner in ensuring there is freedom of navigation and a rules-based order would greatly benefit the US and the Quad.

Another reason as to why the US cannot afford to lose the friendship of Sri Lanka is especially because the island is located in close proximity to the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). Protection of these sea routes is of extreme importance to all states as they are vital to the international shipping for the transportation of energy and finished goods. Protecting the SLOCs is directly linked to the US Indo-Pacific defence strategy, which indicates that the SLOCs should be safeguarded from external aggression, indicating that no single country should dominate the international shipping lanes. This further adds to the concerns the US has with regard to China and in ensuring that there is a rules-based order ensuring freedom of navigation in the ocean south of Sri Lanka.

Alongside the US interests, there are the apprehensions of India. India has been concerned of the increased amicable relationship between Beijing and Colombo, and has on many occasions attempted to strengthen their bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. Mr. Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka was preceded by a stopover in New Delhi, where the two sides discussed how they could bolster ties in curtailing an increasingly assertive China. They agreed to increase their military relationship so that India could be the US’ ally in the Indian Ocean. These concerns stem from the enhanced Chinese assistance and investment visible in and around Asia, especially in countries such as Sri Lanka. But what is not taken into context is that Sri Lanka sought assistance from China only when both India and the US did not positively respond to its requests for assistance. Therefore it is possible that this visit in haste prior to the presidential elections was in order to amend existing relations.

In conclusion, it must be noted that US relations with Sri Lanka cannot be merely understood from this single visit by Mr. Pompeo. The context of the bilateral relations from how they were maintained from the past must be understood when Sri Lanka continues to engage with its biggest export destination. However, Sri Lanka needs to understand and strongly implement its non-aligned foreign policy now more than ever, as it is once again being involuntarily being driven into the power rivalries of the global powers. Therefore, Sri Lanka must evaluate its stance in the 21st century and be assertive in its engagement with all these powers without being pulled into their interests and games.

Dr. Bhagya Senaratne has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Colombo. Her areas of interest are Foreign Policy, Sri Lanka-China Relations, Maritime Security and Strategic Communication.