- The prelude to the upcoming CCP centenary has seen party-affiliated bodies, such as The China Reform Forum (CRF), making inroads into Sri Lanka’s strategic circle, building appreciation for an alternative model to democracy.
- This highlights the need for a rethink of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy analyses. The Colombo ECT East Container Terminal, which involves India and Japan, for example, has been held up and is under review. It is argued the block is from Sri Lankan policymakers due to the China tilt in its foreign policy.
- Crucially, middle powers and developing economies, including Sri Lanka, should avoid their foreign policy analyses falling into the psychological trap of ‘false binaries’ – the insistence that everything boils down to choosing between China as the future and the US as the past.
The middle kingdom China, in its ancient past, played a global leadership role by creating a tributary system where nations like Sri Lanka paid tribute. China is far from this position today; now with its function in global multilateral institutions, it is playing a ‘nation-state’ role with its civilisational footprint. China would need to invest more in building trust, respecting diverse political models, and following international norms and values. The strategic neck of water that connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific will be a highly contested area where China secures its energy route. The recent Chinese unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) submarine drones found in these waters shows the significant investment China makes in undersea surveillance.
“The strategic neck of water that connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific will be a highly contested area where China secures its energy route.”
Geopolitical fissures between India and China regionally has further worsened as explained by Jagannath Panda: “China’s desire to restrict India as a regional power has been further exacerbated by the latter’s vocal criticisms of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and New Delhi’s shift to an active foreign policy, which has seen it deepening partnerships with the US and other Indo-Pacific powers.” The US strategic thinking on India’s role in the region was published in the recent declassified US Indo-Pacific report highlighting India as the primary regional counterweight to China and to deter Chinese “predatory economic practices that freeze out foreign competition… [from] abet[ing] Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aspirations to dominate 21st century economy.” India’s closest neighbour, Sri Lanka, has been a point of reference on both these factors.
US rallying democracies and the CCP centenary
President Biden has chosen Jake Sullivan as his National Security Advisor (NSA), who is one of the youngest to serve in this position. Sullivan was quick to identify a limitation of US foreign policy, which was to ignore its allies whilst the “US has gone alone in its trade fight with China.” The new NSA has rightly identified the importance of “rallying other like-minded democracies” to exert pressure on China rather than fight alone. While for Biden, it is not too late to overcome missed opportunities and build strong alliances with democracies as clearly explained, “it falls to the US to lead the way. No other nation has that capacity. No other nation is built on that idea.”
“The new US NSA has rightly identified the importance of “rallying other like-minded democracies” to exert pressure on China rather than fight alone.”
This year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will celebrate its centenary and exhibit its achievements, especially on the economic front. The CCP, with its Leninist political structure, has not only influenced China from within, but it has also influenced other developing nations who are hooked to its grand infrastructure strategy with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), injecting development reforms to democratic nations. The China Reform Forum (CRF), an academic research institute affiliated to the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, is busy making inroads into Sri Lanka through Rajapaksa’s political party SLPP and a local think tank advising the regime. The local strategic circle being influenced to appreciate an alternative model to democracy will have a dangerous impact, particularly when it comes to upholding liberal democratic values and principles.
Colonial to Chinese infrastructure in Sri Lanka
One of the essential Colonial instruments during the British Empire was its infrastructure. In 1820 — five years after the British captured the Kandyan Kingdom in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) — the Empire commenced the challenging engineering task of constructing a road from the heartland in the hill country to the coastal geography of Colombo. Captain William Francis Dawson from the Colonial Royal Military Engineering headed the project, where a memorial tower was erected for his engineering marvel; he did not live to see the completion of Sri Lanka’s first road network from Colombo to Kandy. The road was beneficial for accelerating trade logistics of coffee followed by tea, which were exported to the empire. The road infrastructure also secured the Kandyan Kingdom, which until then was isolated from the coastal belt.
“China is here to stay, and stay for a long time.”
Today, two centuries later, China is changing the Sri Lankan geography by adding highways, bridges, ports, and airports; and is also reclaiming land through its Port City development project in the commercial capital of Colombo. China is here to stay, and stay for a long time. The infrastructure development is visible and tangible to the locals in rural areas as well as to the urban middle class. Certain middle-class locals are already engaged in subcontracts providing materials, importing them from China and selling it back to Chinese firms. The win-win enterprise has promoted China’s image as the largest trading partner in Sri Lanka. The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) has undertaken construction of part of the central expressway from Colombo to Kandy at a value of US$ 1.164 billion. This is the third expressway the company will build in Sri Lanka.
While China obtains massive development infrastructure projects, other nations have limitations such as the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which was highly politicised by a local committee which might have misled policymakers. Eventually, the nation lost the US$ 480 million grant to improve its transport and logistics infrastructure “due to lack of partner country engagement.” Similarly, the Colombo ECT East Container Terminal, which involves India and Japan, has been held up and is under review. This terminal will operate adjacent to the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT), the Chinese managed terminal.
“Unlike China, India has a much broader engagement with Sri Lanka not limited only to infrastructure.”
Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, who in his first foreign visit in 2021 arrived in Sri Lanka, highlighted the importance of commencement of some of the Indian projects, referring to the ECT, which was reported clearly on local media as: “New Delhi’s concerns that China was guiding the narrative… worried that the rhetoric around the ECT initiative was promoted by Chinese Intelligence, with the objective of having it blocked.” Dr Jaishankar’s assessment is correct on the ECT blockade. The block is from Sri Lankan policymakers due to the China tilt in its foreign policy. This is due to Sri Lanka’s weak foreign policy posture on its strategic choices, where there is irrational revisiting of past decisions to satisfy external powers limiting its strategic decision space. While Sri Lankan foreign policy has a deepening partnership with China and its BRI as opposed to the Indo-Pacific, foreign policy analyses has fallen into the psychological trap of ‘false binaries’ — a clear miscalculation by the Sri Lankan regime’s foreign policy establishment. The false binary — as explained by Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan as captured in Rory Medcalf’s book — is the insistence that everything boils down to choosing between China as the future and the US as the past. Sri Lanka could explore and benefit more from close ties with the middle powers than equating most foreign policy decisions on binaries.
UNHRC & Tamilian grievances
Unlike China, India has a much broader engagement with Sri Lanka not limited only to infrastructure. India’s concern for Tamilian grievances and reconciliation not being adequately addressed was raised by Dr Jaishankar, bringing the 13th amendment on the devolution of power to his official statement. Sri Lanka is to face the UNHRC session in March and India will have elections to the state of Tamil Nadu then, a concern for New Delhi. Dr Jaishankar in bringing forward this long-delayed concern of Tamilian grievances months before the UNHRC session comes at the right time, as it can be seen to be a gesture to reduce the pressure building on Sri Lanka as it approaches the March UNHRC session. Thus, a few days after Jaishankar’s visit, the overnight removal of a Tamil war memorial on the Jaffna University turned out to be diametrically opposite to the government accomplishing and finding space for genuine reconciliation. The accumulated pressure on Tamilian grievances will bring a huge drawback to Indo-Lanka relations. C. Raja Mohan argues “India can encourage, but can’t really force Colombo”; thus, India will be pressurised to take the latter position due to repeated failure in domestic policies. The Sri Lankan government should address the pressing issues of Tamilian grievances in a more progressive and genuine manner, recalibrate its foreign policy and guard the values of democracy. The alternative will make it the cliché par excellence of a gradual democratic dysfunction in the coming years.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science. This article was originally published by the Observer Research Foundation on 25 January 2021.