Photo courtesy of ORF
The primary objective of Secretary Pompeo’s visit to South and South East Asia (Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, Indonesia and Vietnam) was to drum up support for the US Republican team in the US presidential election. This is clear from the timing of the initiative to coincide with the height of the US presidential campaign; a strong South/South-East Asian anti-China response would boost support for President Donald Trump from a segment of the electorate. The responses in India and the Maldives have been very positive for the US but those two countries were already oriented against China. In the case of Sri Lanka, it does not appear that the visit was very successful. Sri Lanka has to be very cautious in not alienating China, which has invested very heavily in Sri Lanka over a long period. These investments are still underway and are of such magnitude that even the US cannot match them.
The history of Inter-Asian relationships are an important dimension. China and Sri Lanka have had very long associations going back nearly two thousand years, starting with Buddhist missionaries from Sri Lanka going across to China, Japan and neighboring countries. Moreover, the Sri Lankan Indian relationship has been both rich and fragile, with ups and downs for many, many decades. Given these dynamics, the Sri Lankan state may believe that it cannot afford to alienate China; in fact, some kind of Chinese presence in Sri Lanka maybe considered necessary to avoid overdependence on India. In particular, the Rajapaksa family have long cultivated continued good diplomatic and economic relations with China even at the cost of such ties with India.
In turn, for China, particularly because its relationship with India is very unsatisfactory, Sri Lanka is a very valuable partner occupying a strategic position in its One Belt-One Road initiative. In the Pacific area, China may have choices but in the Indian Ocean, a good relationship with Sri Lanka is an unavoidable necessity for China, hence the scale and nature of the investment.
The Sri Lankan official statement refers to the non-aligned policy of Sri Lanka. However, this may or may not be a major factor because the non-aligned movement is virtually defunct. The towering figures associated with it such as Nehru, Nkrumah, Tito, Nasser, Sukharno and Bandaranaike are no more. Their successors have other priorities and may not have the same vision of global south solidarities. Moreover, with the passing of time, the memory of European colonialism and the vigor of anti-colonial mobilization is fading. Further, the non-aligned movement was built around the rivalry of the US and Western Europe on the one side and the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on the other. With the break up of the Soviet bloc and the fading of Europe from its central role in world affairs, the foundation of the non-aligned movement has virtually disappeared.
What is relevant to Sri Lankan decision makers is China’s massive investment in the country. It is an investment that is very visible in infrastructure development in Sri Lanka. These projects are ongoing and will continue for many years. No other country or institution can make a comparable investment. There are valid debates about the merits of these projects and whether they profit the country or whether they profit individual actors. In fact, it is possible that Sri Lankan may become overwhelmed in debt and become even more dependent on China – the Hambantota harbor is occupied by China on a 99 year lease and is a sign of this increased long term dependence.
The US needs more allies to confront China in South, South-East and East Asia. The US cannot do anything significant in this matter without parallel investments of similar scale to China’s investments in the region; it is neither willing or able to do this. The outcome of the US presidential election is unlikely to have significant impact on Sri Lanka’s relationship with the US and China.