As party infighting continues to dominate the political landscape, voters are still left guessing as to the nature of programmes the main contenders in the forthcoming presidential election hope to introduce if they win. This is with only a couple of months to go before the poll. The uncertainty comes against a backdrop where competing big powers are showing increased interest in Sri Lanka for their own reasons of strategy.
It is known that external powers meddled in ways that affected the outcome of the 2015 presidential poll. With big power competition intensifying, the prospect of external influence being at play during this election arises again.
The candidate of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his wide-ranging policy statement at the 2019 Viyath Maga convention, showed a sophisticated awareness on the importance of the international dimension in the backdrop of the upcoming presidential election. It was the opening subject of his speech published in the media.
“Sri Lanka is a free, sovereign and independent country. As our country is most strategically located in the naval routes connecting the East and the West, we have once again become the focus of global powers,” he said. He went on to quote Parag Khanna’s ‘The Future is Asian’: “Today, all of Asia’s empires and powers are seeking national revival. None will bow to others. The future Asian geopolitical order will thus be neither American nor Chinese led.” Asians in particular have realised that economic integration and prosperity require geopolitical stability,” he quoted Khanna as saying.
Although Gotabaya’s candidacy has been declared by the SLPP, analysts continue to speculate issues surrounding his US citizenship renunciation and possible trade-offs with Americans. “Washington needs Sri Lanka as a military hub as opposed to opening a military base to execute its Indo-Pacific regional militarisation plan. The speedy resolution of the citizenship issue is well linked to America’s strategy to use Sri Lanka in such a manner under a Rajapaksa administration,” said Washington-based defence analyst Daya Gamage, writing in Asian Tribune last month.
We also know that US Ambassador Teplitz held ‘cordial discussions’ twice with opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa – in July and then in August, the day of the SLPP convention at which he was named leader of the new party. The latter visit was in the company of US Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells.
In order to dispel doubts created by the ambiguity surrounding these matters, Gotabaya needs to clarify his stance regarding the lopsided and secretive defence related agreements with the US that have caused serious concern after details were revealed in the media. These are the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) signed by the government in 2017 and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) said to be under negotiation.
In addition to sovereignty and security-related concerns relating to these deals, any aspiring leader would have to consider how they would compromise relations with other friendly nations, shrinking Sri Lanka’s strategic space and unnecessarily placing it in the cross-hairs of nuclear-powered big power conflicts that could dangerously escalate. The Sino-US relationship is becoming increasingly fraught with a trade war and the Huawei dispute.
All presidential aspirants would need to be more forthcoming on the Sri Lanka-US agreements and on how they intend to navigate geopolitical pressures resulting from US-China rivalry in the region. Till now, they have adopted an ostrich-like attitude towards these issues which continue to swirl.
Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who publicly backs Sajith Premadasa for UNP’s presidential candidacy, was asked at a recent media briefing about the status of the US’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact – another controversial agreement with economic and strategic ramifications. He is on record vowing it would ‘definitely be signed.’ If it were not done in the next few months, the UNP has expressed its desire to do so when it comes to power, he said.
Two questions arise; Could Minister Samaraweera make such a pledge on behalf of the Premadasa-led UNP campaign, unless Sajith Premadasa himself is party to it? And if Premadasa has agreed, why has he kept mum about it while a UNP heavyweight like Samaraweera makes public statements? While Samaraweera’s pro-US leanings are no secret, the MCC’s strongest supporter in Sri Lanka has been pro-US Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is battling Premadasa for UNP nomination.
The US however has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. It would favour any candidate who helps advance its global agenda – notwithstanding its hypocritical protestations about war crimes and human rights.
With US moves to extend its influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) intensifying in recent years, numerous conferences have been convened on related topics. The Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) organised by the India Foundation concluded its fourth edition earlier this month in the Maldives. It was chaired by Sri Lankan PM Wickremesinghe.
IOC’s deliberations each year have been underpinned by the converging regional interests of the US and India– a strategic partner of the US. The Americans use such fora to give currency to their new terminology of ‘Indo Pacific’ that links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. This could be seen as a conceptual device which, at the level of optics, would help the US extend its military build-up in the Pacific theatre, into the IOR.
The renaming of its Pacific Command as ‘Indo Pacific Command’ could be seen as a related move. It is also interesting that the first and third IOCs were held in Singapore and Vietnam – in Southeast Asia – while the second and fourth were in Colombo and the Maldives – in South Asia – again ‘blurring the boundaries.’
Although China’s representation (if any) was low-key in the first three editions of IOC, this year it is reported that delegates from the US and China sparred openly. The US diplomat was none other than former commander of US Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, now serving as ambassador to South Korea. Harris is reported to have launched a “scathing attack on China” leading to a “tense environment” with Chinese diplomat Wei Hongtian voicing his disagreement to Harris’ strong sentiments, according to the ANI report. What is interesting is that Harris’ diatribe was unrelated to any specific Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean, but included China’s treatment of the Uighurs, the Belt and Road Initiative and its ‘behaviour in the South China Sea.’ So now, the South China Sea, a maritime flashpoint in the Pacific, has become fair game at an Indian Ocean Conference.
Another point of interest at IOC-4 was the more assertive tone of India. Its External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar adopted the US’ terminology of ‘Indo Pacific’ and ‘freedom of navigation and overflight’ which his predecessor, the late Sushma Swaraj had been careful to avoid. Jaishankar is reported to have said the Indo-Pacific was “the logical step after Act East and a break out from the confines of South Asia.” He had added that “Given the steady externalisation of its economy and the shifting focus towards the East, India cannot remain unaffected by developments that impinge on the freedom of navigation or of overflight.” While the speech ties in with the second-term-Modi Government’s more ‘offensive’ approach to foreign policy, it also aligns India with US interests more openly than before. It is not clear how other IOR States reacted.
IOR States are not the only ones faced with the dilemma of navigating US-China rivalry, small States in Southeast Asia too are grappling with a similar situation as it appears. At the Shangri-La Dialogue hosted by Singapore in June, host-Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked that while small States may seem powerless in the face of big power rivalry, they were ‘not entirely without agency.
“We maintain links with both sides, but to actively avoid taking sides actually also requires actively not being pressured to take sides,” he is reported to have said, prompting laughter, according to Bhavan Jaipragas writing in South China Morning Post. “And unfortunately, when the lines start to get drawn, everybody asks: ‘Are you my friend or not my friend?’ And that makes it difficult.”