Colombo Telegraph

Lanka A Global Swing State

The Sunday Times Editorial

Sinha Ratnatunga - Editor Sunday Times

In the coming week, two of the world’s largest nation-powers, China and the United States of America (US), pick their leaders; China for the next decade, and the US for the next four years.China’s ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee will confirm within the new ‘forbidden city’ in Beijing, and behind closed doors, its next President and Prime Minister. Away from the prying eyes of the multitude, the 1.35 billion citizens it claims to represent, this select band will announce after the National Party Congress the names of the coterie who will run China’s mighty military machine and its juggernaut economy.

The Chinese people will have to grin and bear this choreographed change of guard. In decisively sharp contrast, the American people will cast their vote for a President (and a Government) of their choice after months of strenuous campaigns, live TV debates and town hall meetings based largely on issues that face the country. It is a gruelling but transparent exercise shaming China’s secretive ‘consensus by conclave’ election.

Whatever the modus operandi in picking their leaders, the significance of these elections is not lost on the rest of the world, including Sri Lanka. It is all the more important that these changes are taking place at a time when there is a marked shift in emphasis by Sri Lanka from the West to East; while the US is lecturing Sri Lanka on human rights and pumping in little money, China asks no questions and is expected to proffer US$ 10 billion (Rupees 1.3 trillion) up to 2015 as investments, loans and aid to Sri Lanka.

First to the US. Incumbent President Barack Obama is clearly the darling of the world. He has, notwithstanding his authorisation of drone attacks over Pakistan, managed to lessen the view of much of the world of the US as a satanic state. A socially conscious leader, President Obama introduced universal medical care in America which five previous Presidents could not achieve. He brought back the US troops from Iraq and is bringing them back from Afghanistan and as far as the American people were concerned, had al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden killed. However, domestic issues, and a sense of dashed hopes overriding the high expectations from a super-star have raised questions about his performance with some 40 million American still unemployed.

The respected New Yorker magazine endorsing President Obama had this to say; “Romney (President Obama’s challenger Mitt Romney) has embraced the values and priorities of a Republican Party that has grown increasingly reactionary and rigid in the social vision. It is a party dominated by those who despise government and see no value in public efforts aimed at ameliorating the immense and rapidly increasing inequalities in American society”.

What’s in all this for Sri Lanka? It was under President Obama’s watch that the US spearheaded a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last March. But this stance on human rights issues clearly has a bipartisan approach in the US. Obama’s Sri Lanka policy is pushed by the likes of Samantha Power and Susan Rice – and Hillary Clinton. Her new Ambassador in Colombo is also tough on HR issues – with an Asian smile. The Tamil Diaspora is active in the US while our mission is no match for it.

China’s growing influence over Sri Lanka will cast a long shadow but will not be sufficient to “soften” US policy on HR issues whoever assumes office. Analysts believe Obama 2 will take an even tougher approach, while Romney 1 will continue policy – with an even lesser tolerance on Iran sanctions that is already crippling Sri Lankan oil supplies. Romney 1 will also take a more critical view of China worldwide.

In a sense, Sri Lanka’s rapid drift to the Chinese orbit would make the Chinese elections more meaningful even if they, like the Chinese people, know next to nothing of what’s happening. Chinese interests in Sri Lanka have taken a quantum leap in recent years. A Financial Times correspondent visiting the south last week wrote that Sri Lanka had three official languages, but he noticed a fourth – Chinese — in signboards pointing the way to loads of workers from that country immersed in development projects in the area.

He wrote, “Sri Lanka has emerged as not just a global test case of how to spur growth after a conflict, but also a closely watched swing state where the US and India are vying with China for influence”. Like all foreign nations, China’s interest in Sri Lanka is not entirely altruistic, rather very much part of the former’s geo-strategic interests. The Rajapaksa Government seems to be happily in a revolving door policy with Beijing; just ask for help, and get it, repeatedly – from war weaponry to construction projects. It is of the firm belief that a militarily and economically surging China will be its ultimate ‘safety net’ in a turbulent modern world.

Chinese foreign policy is not subject to the vagaries of which individual is in office. The Chinese Communist Party is a collective body that decides policy by consensus. In that sense, there is little to worry of any swings and roundabouts in China’s Sri Lanka policy in the future. The worry would be, if at all, of Sri Lanka’s dependence on China in the coming years under whatever dispensation in Beijing and the compromises Colombo will have to make for this, all too cosy relationship.

Fresh onslaught on Lanka

Sri Lanka came under scrutiny once again before the international community at the UN in Geneva this week. As expected, the US took a broad swipe at Sri Lanka concentrating its fire on judicial independence, while China asked that Sri Lanka be given space to work out its own solutions.

In the backdrop of this (please see our news story) a former senior UNDP staffer, Charles Petrie, a controversial British national and former Resident Representative in Burma who was booted out by the country’s military junta only to return now with political reform in that country, is heading a panel that will submit a report on the performance, or the lack of it, of UN staff in Sri Lanka during the last stages of the war against the LTTE in 2009.

Once the report is out, it is going to once again bring into focus the Darusman report commissioned by the UN Secretary General – a report that was very critical of the Sri Lankan Government. Already, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has commented on the report saying, “Petrie’s report is not a pretty picture about the UN in Sri Lanka”. How does he know the contents of a report yet to be released? Does the Government or our mission in New York have advance intelligence on this report, which Mr. Evans seems to have? A legitimate question would be the credibility of Mr. Petrie’s independence working with the Norwegian ‘conflict resolution industry’.

All this smacks of yet another attempt by the international community to gang up on Sri Lanka. Is the Government ready for this fresh onslaught?

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