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Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

December 8th, 2020

Sri Lanka, China and the coming Biden Foreign Policy

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

December 8th, 2020

Sri Lanka, China and the coming Biden Foreign Policy

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

  • South Asia will gain ever-greater prominence in the US grand strategy due to the significant Chinese sphere of influence in the region.
  • For Sri Lanka, three key factors will have a major impact on its foreign policy: Biden’s support for multilateralism, the potential for change in the US’ approach to the Indo-Pacific, and ongoing US sanctions on Chinese companies.
  • 2021 will begin with two different norms pressurising regional powers with binary choices. A best-case scenario for South Asia would see Biden’s presidency reduce its China rift and search for compromise.

Secretary Pompeo’s message to the Sri Lankan people to choose a “more democratic path than tyranny” has fewer implications in the post-US Presidential election environment. It has been delegitimised by Pompeo’s defeated leader, with Trump questioning the US’ democratic values and procedures while refusing a peaceful transition of power and decapitating the Pentagon. It is as if President-elect Biden has the initial task of restoring and instilling dignity and integrity to the White House.

In the last few years, the US has lost direction and departed from multilateral institutions built with US leadership. While in domestic politics, unpleasant racism, xenophobia and sexism has engulfed the society and deeply polarised the community. The new President-elect has a herculean task to bridge and unite the two divergent mindsets living within the same geography. To “heal the nation, not to divide but to unify, stop treating our opponents as enemies” was Biden’s initial message as he clearly understood that there were millions who still believe in the Trumpian message and Trump is most unlikely to retire in the coming years—Biden will ascend to office at 78 years of age and Trump, if he returns in 2024, will also be 78. Biden will have two daunting challenges – to restore peace to his polarised society and return the US to its global leadership role. For the domestic role, there is one positive sign. His own Vice President Kamala Harris, being the first South Asian American to rise to the height of Vice President in the history of US politics, could open the sealed envelope of Trump on diversity and begin to build racial harmony—an essential missing ingredient in US society.

Warning of the dangers of Trump’s rather messed up foreign policy, Former Defence Secretary Chuck Hegel has explained that the way out of the one-way street of the Trump foreign policy is to make it a two-way street of mutual benefit. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy brought isolation and an overall reduction of liberal values in the international arena. The “Trumpian structural disruptions, America First and isolationist foreign and security policies have provided China with opportunities to expand,” as assessed by Shrikanth Kondapillai. China has grown and further strengthened its global reach with US allies, filling the vacuum created from narrow trade wars and the weakening of the US Atlantic Axis, which Europe was deeply concerned with as Trump’s deteriorated foreign policy functioned as the guarantor of regional security. This perhaps echoes the moment when the powerful British empire failed to secure its allies, such as in Singapore during the Japanese occupation.

Biden Foreign Policy and Sri Lanka

The year 2020 began with the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani of Iran, followed by a virus which altered global geopolitics resulting in a US-China Cold War and an unprecedented economic instability. US foreign policy has taken a dramatic shift during the Trump administration—withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, TPP, UNHRC, Paris Climate Summit, just to name a few pivotal strategic decisions altering some important previous policies.

South Asia will have prominence in the US grand strategy due to the significant Chinese sphere of influence in the region. China, the peer competitor to the US, was seen as a revisionist and aggressive power during the Trump administration. Chinese geopolitical influence in the eight South Asian countries is too significant for the US to ignore. China, seen as a predator in certain countries such as Sri Lanka, is a concern for the US and its allies. The last high-level bilateral act of the Trump administration was the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) with India, enhancing the bilateral security relationship between the two largest democracies of the world. US foreign policy towards India would be further strengthened as Biden is committed to convening a ‘summit of democracies’ in his initial year, to take on autocratic regimes. The Sri Lankan regime, which is close to China, will have to navigate stronger geopolitical headwinds with the new Biden administration. There will be three key areas which will directly impact Sri Lankan foreign policy:

First, Biden will re-engage strongly in multilateral institutions and strengthen US engagement and its role. In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, co-sponsored by the US and the former Sri Lankan government, was hardly implemented due to domestic pressure and subsequent withdrawal. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, which withdrew from the country’s own co-sponsored resolution, will face significant pressure from the new US administration. Vice President Kamala Harris, who has spoken strongly of Human Rights issues in Kashmir during her campaign, will turn to Sri Lanka’s Tamilian grievances due to her Tamilian ethnicity. Tamil Nadu, a state where Modi lost all the seats in the last parliamentary election, could engage with her to voice the Tamilian issue where the Centre has botched up multiple attempts to gain attention from Colombo. After the conclusion of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009, a permanent political solution such as devolution of power has been shelved by subsequent governments. Unlike India, Sri Lanka has not spoken of devolution even during the last bilateral discussion with PM Modi and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Second, the US position on the Indo-Pacific and China will have an impact on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Many Scholars assess that there is a bipartisan consensus on US-China policy. Biden will continue Trump’s China posture on trade, the pandemic, technology transfers, Taiwan, South China Sea, economic tech espionage and North Korea. While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated anti-China sentiments, there is a fresh opening in 2021 for the Biden Presidency to move away from Cold War 2.0 and ‘Wolf Warrior’ responses to a tamer diplomatic posture and an untraversed path of mutual cooperation. The importance of multilateralism was rightly highlighted at the recent SCO summit by President Xi when he stated, “we should take history as a mirror, practice multilateralism, improve global governance, follow the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, build a governance system, and share the benefits of development with all countries.” This could be an avenue to explore peaceful cooperation and the easing of Indo-China border tensions.

Third, after losing the election, Trump issued a Presidential executive order against China on 12th November, which will be affected by 11th January 2021. Thirty-one Chinese companies were targeted for “exploiting United States capital to resource and to enable the development and modernisation of its military, intelligence, and other security apparatuses“. Trump’s strategy is to pass unto Biden, the agglomerated national security pressure on China during his tenure. Nevertheless, due to the US vetocracy model of government, most executive decisions do not get executed, such as the TikTok ban held up by the Commerce department. Secondary sanctions on Chinese companies by the US State department will impact Chinese projects in countries like Sri Lanka. The twenty-four Chinese state-owned enterprises, including subsidiaries such as China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) that are involved in Colombo Port City and BRI-related projects in the island, faced pressure from the Trump regime. Would sanctions continue under the Biden Presidency and to what degree?  This would include Huawei’s 5G network where a rollout was planned from the previous Sirisena government but the overall project was not approved. With Colombo’s close ties with Beijing and Huawei’s recent strategic approach to sway policy, the project is more likely to be secured. With India taking stern measures to ban TikTok, how will Sri Lankan policy navigate on Chinese firms with US security concerns? These are some important questions to ponder.

CPC – SLPP Seminar and Biden’s Summit of Democracies

The Chinese Communist party seminar was a peculiar development in Sri Lanka. The recent CPC and SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) political party seminar in Colombo happened after SLPP political party architect Basil Rajapaksa’s remark in July saying, “SLPP party’s vision is to develop similar to the Chinese Communist Party (CPC),” which is a clear sign of preference for the Chinese development model. A Sri Lanka benefiting from China should also engage in Biden’s ‘summit of democracies’ amplifying Sri Lanka’s democratic values and suppressing semi-autocratic strains to introduce the third Rajapaksa brother to Parliament making a ‘triumvirate’ of power centres. Sri Lanka does not need to join the US and its allies to ‘contain’ nor ‘constrain’ China as Shashi Tharoor prescribes to India, thus, articulating its principles of commitment for an international law and a rules-based order.

With the end of President Gotabaya’s first year in office this month, he should contemplate a sound foreign policy to navigate external shocks from US sanctions on Chinese products. It is as if 2021 will begin with two different norms pressurising nations with binary choices—from the BRI and Indo-Pacific to cyber systems divided into two digital economic blocs dominated by China and by the US. Let us hope that Biden’s Presidency will reduce its China rift and search for compromise with a shared value of mutual cooperation—‘a two-way street’ that will benefit the entire South Asian region.


This article was originally published by the Observer Research Foundation on November 23 2020. This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga is an International Security and Geopolitics Analyst and Strategic Advisor from Sri Lanka. He has served as the head of two Government think tanks providing strategic advocacy to Governments and Private Companies. He is the Founding Director General of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. He has served 15 years in the government and was the former Executive Director of the government foreign policy think tank Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute. Asanga’s interest is in the geopolitics of South Asia, Indian Ocean Region and regional security in South Asia. He is alumni of IVLP (US), APCSS (Hawaii), NDU (NESA, Washington), YGL (World Economic Forum). Asanga is the author of Sri Lanka at Crossroads (2019) and Conundrum of an Island (2021).

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