US-Lanka relations will have to be seen in the context of US-China relations because as in the case of Trump, containment of China will be Biden’s focus in his policy on Asia, including South Asia. Therefore, Sri Lanka, with its growing economic ties with China, may continue to feel the pinch. But Biden’s approach to China is expected to be more nuanced than Trump’s, and this could work in Sri Lanka’s favour.
Biden sees China’s rise as a serious challenge, but he does not see China as a sworn enemy which deserves an urgent regime change. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been openly campaigning for the overthrow of the “predatory” Chinese Communist Party. In contrast to Trump, Biden sees China as a “competitor” albeit an unruly competitor. He has riled against China’s “abusive” practices in the trade, technology and financial sectors, but he will counter it with better US technologies and the willing cooperation of America’s “democratic allies”. Biden is pledged to take America’s democratic partners along with him in his campaign to make China realise that change will be in its own interest.
Biden has acknowledged that China is making massive investments in energy, infrastructure, and technology that threaten to leave the US behind. He would attempt to reverse this trend to be able to face China credibly and peacefully.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Biden believes that “remaining competitive with China hinges on US innovation and uniting the economic might of democracies around the world.” This involves economic cooperation with other countries, including Sri Lanka.
As Vice President under Obama, Biden had backed the Administration’s Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), arguing it helped check China’s influence. But Trump had quit the TPP saying that it favoured China.
On military intervention abroad, Biden advocated narrower objectives for the use of force and was sceptical about the US attempts to reshape foreign societies through regime-changing. This is good news for Sri Lanka as it is constantly worried about alleged Western attempts to bring about a regime change.
Human Rights Issues
Yes, like any other US President, Biden would encourage democratic and human rights movements in various countries including Sri Lanka. But he is against unilateral and aggressive efforts, preferring diplomacy and working through alliances and global institutions, CFR points out.
Biden will take the US back into the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), reversing Trump’s decision. Therefore, as in the Obama era, the US would back Western efforts to push for the implementation of UNHRC resolutions on ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka including the setting up of “credible” judicial mechanisms to address allegations of “war crimes” against the Lankan armed forces.
This could be an embarrassment for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa particularly because he has clearly stated that Sri Lanka would quit international organisations which poked their noses into its “internal affairs” and that on no account would he allow the country’s war heroes to be hauled up before international judicial mechanisms.
A section of the majority Sinhalese is perturbed by the fact that the Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris, is partly Tamil. This section, using social media, is incorrectly portraying Harris as a person of Jaffna-Batticaloa origin to underline her alleged links with the Lankan Tamils and the Tamil Diaspora in the US.
A columnist in a State-owned Lankan paper has even said that the Tamil Diaspora has established links with her.
However, knowledgeable sources say that while Harris and Biden are committed to human rights, in contrast to Trump, they will weigh various issues before they shape their policy on the human rights and war crimes issues in Sri Lanka. One of the most important considerations will be the need to keep the government in Colombo from leaning more and more towards China and one way to doing so is not to press too hard on the rights and war crimes issues. India too is focused on the Chinese threat to its position in the region and its policy on the island nation will be shaped by that.
Unlike Trump, Biden will be development-oriented which will suit Sri Lanka, as it is presently focused on development under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. According to a report in devex.com, Antony Blinken, a foreign policy adviser for the Biden campaign, said: “We’d bring aid back to the centre of our foreign policy — the emphasis would be on diplomacy, on democracy, and development.” Biden is one of the most knowledgeable on development. He was “very supportive of development” as Vice President. At USAID’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2011, Biden talked passionately about the role of development, with really deep knowledge of how USAID and development works, according to a former USAID official.
Lanka Ready For US Investments
Sri Lanka is ready to go halfway to make friends with the US by welcoming US investments, was made clear by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when the current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came calling recently. Answering the US allegation that China had put Sri Lanka in a debt trap, Gotabaya told Pompeo that this was not true and that China was only funding development works. The President also made it clear that Sri Lanka has no favourites and that it will welcome US investments.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena gave a list of areas in which US investments will be welcome. The listed included: trade, investment, and tourism; assistance for building capacity of Sri Lankan business; enhancing bilateral cooperation in fields such as ICT, Cyber Security, science, technology, and innovation; power (LNG) sector; energy sector and railway sector (locomotives); greater access to the US market including through the expansion of US-GSP List.
On his part, Pompeo promised aid in developing Lankan tourism and agriculture. In order to further invigorate the bilateral engagement to enhance cooperation in economic, defence and security spheres, the two countries intend to convene the already established bilateral dialogues, i.e. US- Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, and the Joint Council of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement at an early, mutually convenient, time frame.
Sri Lanka Will Remain Neutral
While the United States was keen to advance the US initiative to keep the Indo-Pacific region “free and open”, President Gotabaya stated that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will be neutral.
“As a Sovereign, Free, Independent nation, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will remain neutral, non-aligned and friendly. Conscious of the opportunities and responsibilities that come with our strategic location, we see the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in our seas and air space, also protecting sea lines of communication and undersea cables.
We believe all countries should adhere to and respect international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We share views on the potential multifaceted maritime cooperation.”
The Trump Administration has not challenged this policy yet. But Biden is expected to be more accommodative on these issues than Trump.
He would try and get American companies to invest as much as possible, though the investment climate in Sri Lanka for the private sector is not ideal. To take Sri Lanka along, Biden’s administration might even agree to re-negotiate the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. A Sri Lankan Presidential Commission had pressed for the re-negotiation of the controversial pact.