Sri Lanka is in the process of sending new envoys to three of its most important diplomatic stations, Beijing, New Delhi and Washington. Dr.Palitha Kohona goes to China, Milinda Moragoda to India and Ravinatha Aryasinha to the US. All three have had distinguished careers in diplomacy and administration, and all three are cerebral and nationalistic.
But work is cut out for them in their stations. Sri Lanka is now well and truly in the vortex of Indian Ocean geo-politics. Gone are the days when it only had India to contend with. With the outbreak of Eelam War IV in 2006, The Western bloc led by the UN, US and EU stormed into the Lankan scene, taking up war-related human rights issues at the UN to Colombo’s discomfiture. The EU stopped its GSP Plus tariff concessions to Sri Lanka with an intention to cripple its economy and force it to toe the Western line.
But the entry of China in 2010 gave Colombo much needed relief. It could now turn to Beijing for political and financial support denied by the West. But China’s entry was not an unmixed blessing. It created intense anxiety and hostility in New Delhi and worry in the Western capitals. Between 2010 and 2014, an expansionist China under President Xi Jinping had become a bugbear for the entrenched powers, especially the US.
Meanwhile, in November 2019 and August 2020, Sri Lanka had overwhelmingly elected a President and a parliament wedded to nationalism which was being challenged by regional and global powers eyeing the island for its strategic importance in the Indian Ocean Region. Sri Lanka became a truly international political arena in which various powers were jockeying for positions.
While China has already established a large footprint in Sri Lanka with its massive infrastructure projects, Beijing’s rivals have been trying to stem further inroads saying that Chinese projects have landed Sri Lanka in a debt trap. Simultaneously, the US is coming up with its own version of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road diplomacy. It is putting pressure on Sri Lanka to sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) for a grant of US$ 480 million for infrastructural development. But Colombo is wary about the compact’s impact on the country’s sovereignty.
The extreme nationalistic Sri Lankan opinion is that the MCC compact, as it stands, is an assault on the country’s sovereignty, and therefore, it should not be rejected outright. But a more moderate nationalistic opinion (perhaps shared by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa) is that the compact should be welcome if the offending clauses are removed. But the million dollar question is: will the US accept the Presidential committee’s proposal to amend the clauses, which are perhaps universally applied by the MCC across the world?
Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador-to-be in Washington will have the unenviable task of convincing the State Department that amendments are required for the sake of US-Lankan friendship and future economic and geo-political cooperation. But he would have to keep in mind that Sri Lanka cannot antagonize the US beyond a point because the US accounts for 26% of Lanka’s exports.
With the US beginning to sanction Chinese companies, and with the prospect of sanctions widening in scope as tension in the South China Sea mounts in the coming months and years, China’s investments and economic activities in Sri Lanka might have to take hits which would be detrimental to Sri Lanka. China is the only credible financer of major infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Sri Lanka will have to maintain a balance in its relations with Washington and Beijing if it has to protect itself from crossfire.
Milinda Moragoda, who is heading to New Delhi, has an equally challenging task as India is as keen as the US to see that Sri Lanka, right at its doorstep, does not leave its orbit to become a Chinese satellite. Even as it is portraying itself as “the” development agent in South Asia, India is aware that it does not have the deep pocket that China has. It is therefore seeking relevance as a “prime security provider” and as the “first responder” if there is any distress call from Sri Lanka stemming from either a natural or a man-made disaster. Indeed, India has been a first responder on many occasions in the past.
But India has certain expectations from Sri Lanka which the latter is unable to meet. For geo-strategic cum economic reasons, India wants to have a stake and a part in running the Eastern Container Terminal in Colombo port. This is partly to keep an eye on the Chinese who have been running a container terminal in the same port. Equally importantly, Colombo port is India’s transhipment hub. India has also been eyeing the Mattala and the Palaly airports and the Kankesanthurai and Trincomalee harbors.
India had been given 99 giant oil storage tanks in Trincomalee out of which it is using only 15. Sri Lanka is asking for some of the other tanks for its use. But the Indians are insisting on the formation of a joint venture to run the other tanks. There is now a stalemate on this issue. Sri Lanka’s nationalists leaders, swept to power by two successive nationalistic waves, have adopted the policy of not giving away “national assets” to foreign entities. This is preventing the Gotabaya government from yielding to India’s demands. Maintaining and building Indo-Lankan relations against this background will be a challenge for the Rajapaksa government and High Commissioner Moragoda.
Dr.Palitha Kohona in Beijing will have to be mindful of the on-going cold war between the US and China and the standoffs and skirmishes on the Sino-Indian border. All three countries, India, China and US, are important for Sri Lanka. When push comes to shove, each of them would expect Colombo to toe its line, putting Sri Lanka in a fix. But a well-thought out, finely designed approach which is also expressed with finesse, should see Sri Lanka through knotty situations.
The three handpicked envoys have the intellectual acumen, the experience and finesse to pull it off. And most importantly, they are backed and led by one of the most cleared headed and practical Presidents of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.