US Game Plan in Sri Lanka: Chinese Chequers?

LASANDALasanda Kurukulasuriya,  courtesy of the Daily Mirror, 22 July 2016, where the title is “Biswal Malinowski playing Chinese Chequers?”

After yet another visit by the two US Assistant Secretaries of State, Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski one cannot help noticing the proximity of the visit to that of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi just four days before. The most notable aspect of the US officials’ trip has been a change in tone (rather than substance) of their public remarks. While there has not been any turnaround from the professed concerns with human rights, reconciliation and accountability, there is noticeably less talk about the need to confront ‘painful facts,’ ‘difficult choices to be made,’ ‘challenges ahead’ and so on. The preoccupations that brought previous US emissaries (themselves included) – relating to Sri Lanka’s strategic location, the focus on Trincomalee etc, remain.

BISWAL plusIf the Geneva stick is not being waved this time around it is probably because it would have been impolitic to do so. During Chinese envoy Wang’s visit Sri Lanka reiterated its participation in China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, “as it is in line with the Government’s initiatives to make Sri Lanka the hub of the Indian Ocean trade …” (Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s statement of 08.07.16).   

And on Monday in Singapore, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Bloomberg in an interview that Sri Lanka has ‘no phobia’ about taking money from China. “… Chinese companies will be cooperating in public-private partnerships on harbour and airport developments in the southern city of Hambantota, with a liquid-natural-gas plant and refinery also set to be provided by Chinese investors. The goal, the prime minister said, is to make Sri Lanka “the hub” of the Indian Ocean for a revived Maritime Silk Road trading route to Europe.”

Sandwiched between the government’s renewed assertions of China’s importance to the economic well-being of Sri Lanka, the US’s visitors’ shift of focus to ‘development’ should not be entirely surprising. We heard Malinowski saying for example that “economic development and reconciliation go hand-in-hand,” and that “Without a peace dividend, it will be harder to pursue reconciliation.”

Biswal’s lengthiest statement during this two-day tour was made on Wednesday (13) at a Rotary Club event in Colombo where she addressed the business community. There she waxed eloquent on the ‘economic advantages of Sri Lanka’s strategic location along major sea lanes in the Indian Ocean’ and ‘Sri Lanka’s potential to become a regional maritime services hub.’ She had visited the Colombo Port and remarked on its ‘enormous capacity,’ being ‘one of the busiest in South Asia.’ And she said “we’re happy to share some of our experienc in lanka can with Sri Lanka in developing” public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, like ports, roads and rail. Sri Lanka can count on “development assistance from our public-sector, and investments from our private-sector,” she said.

Is the US seeking to out-bid China to secure a regional foothold? The fact remains that the US does not have the money that China has to offer when it comes to investment, especially in infrastructure. Unlike the US, China does not make its investments conditional on meddling in internal affairs of other countries, nor demand the introduction of new laws or amendments to existing laws in the host country. The US approach with regard to Sri Lanka has been to use a well calibrated process of arm-twisting in Geneva over the past several years, in order achieve radical reforms internally, that would support its strategic objectives. As a corollary to this project Sri Lanka has to be brought into the Western sphere of influence and integrated into the globalised market economy.

The cat was out of the bag when Biswal said “In support of the Obama Administration’s Rebalance to Asia, we’re working on an initiative we call the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, which aims to strengthen economic ties throughout the region …”

So the US’s Rebalance to Asia (also called ‘Pivot to Asia’) is what it’s all about in the end, with its objective of ‘containing’ the rise of China in the Indo Pacific region and the world. Sri Lanka is being asked to be part of the US’s ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor’ at the same time that it has reiterated its participation in China’s ‘One Belt- One Road’ (Silk Road) initiative. How can Sri Lanka court both China and the US at the same time – as it seems to be trying to – in its pursuit of its own development goals? The lack of a coherent path in foreign relations becomes apparent here. The US habit of using aid as a tool of foreign policy doesn’t help either.

The pressures on Sri Lanka’s political establishment resulting from the US-led resolution and its demands in relation to accountability have reached tipping point. This situation has manifested itself in friction within the ‘national unity’ government – between the UNP and SLFP generally, and between the president and the foreign minister more particularly. President Maithripala Sirisena’s strong public rebuttal of the possibility of including foreign judges in an accountability mechanism, and his assertion of Sri Lankan sovereignty in deciding on these matters, was a sharp response to Foreign Minister Samaraweera’s remarks that there would be foreign involvement and that the president had only been expressing his ‘opinion’ earlier on this matter. The president two days later went on record saying he would not allow any foreign court, judge or organiSation to interfere in the country’s administration and judiciary, no matter ‘whatever views are expressed in various places.’

Even Samaraweera who has been faithfully toeing the pro-western line in foreign policy seemed to have been unprepared for the sudden softening of language by the US. At a so-called press ‘roundtable’ by the visiting duo before their departure, they had apparently been asked about the resolution’s controversial call for a special court with foreign judges to investigate war crimes. Malinowski reportedly told the four reporters who had been invited that“These are complicated issues and there needs to be a process of consultation with all in order to ensure these things are done in a way that earns confidence of the people.” He said the UN resolution respected Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and that “Under the resolution, the government of Sri Lanka will determine the structure and the composition of the court.” There had been no concession to Sri Lankan sovereignty’ in the US’s language earlier. Malinowski noted however that “Sri Lanka had made a commitment to include some international participation in the investigation.”

Afterwards in an interview with a Sunday newspaper (17th) Samaraweera indicated that he had adjusted his stance. “There are no tribunals. There are allegations of war crimes, the mechanisms are to make a credible investigation if those allegations are true” he was reported as saying. He added that the judicial mechanism would come into play only if the claims are proved to be true. However till very recently he had been talking about ‘special courts.’ The foreign minister perhaps awaits clearer signals from Washington on how to tailor his remarks to suit its needs..?    While it is difficult to second-guess US moves in its regional power games, the president’s recent assertiveness possibly offers some hope that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy may from now on be dictated from Colombo and not Washington.    –

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