By R Hariharan –
The month of October was an eventful one for Sri Lanka. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution (20A) empowering the President was passed in parliament with two-thirds majority. The Covid-19 pandemic made a dramatic comeback in a second wave, to boost the virus-affected numbers which stood at 9,791 with 19 deaths as on October 31, 2020. Evidently, the second wave had caught the administration flat footed. In spite of these preoccupations, the worsening relations between two giant Asian powers –India and China – who have close relations with Sri Lanka, churning up the strategic environment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) became a cause of concern. The visits of high power dignitaries – first the Chinese and then the US – brought home the reality of Cold War 2.0 threatening to jeopardize Sri Lanka’s efforts to recover from economic woes. It showed Sri Lanka’s economic recovery in times of Covid pandemic is very much linked to the increasingly difficult task of managing its international relations.
During the first half of the month, the passing of the 20A occupied Sri Lanka’s political centre stage. The controversial 20th Amendment to the Constitution (20A), aimed at restoring the powers of the executive president, deprived by the previous government. In fact, it has replaced the ten-member constitutional council with five-member parliamentary council, bringing the independent commissions under the control of the President. This generated a lot of heart burning between parties and behind the door manoeuvres before the bill was fielded in parliament.
However, in spite of international concerns, political speculations, opposition from some of the Buddhist and Catholic clergy and internal rumblings among ruling party leaders, the 20A had a smooth passage in parliament on October 22, 2020. In the 225-memer House, 156 members voting in favour and 65 against, while four abstained.
Though the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) coalition opposed it and called it as paving way for dictatorship, eight of its own members, including the SJB assistant secretary Ms Diana Gamage, voted in favour of the resolution. SJB partners, who voted in favour included some of the leaders of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and All Ceylon Muslim Congress. The whole voting exercise, underlined the Rajapaksas’ uncanny ability to manoeuvre their way to achieve their political goals.
Cold War 2.0 spills over
The national focus on internal politics, however, did not diminish the increasing global attention to Sri Lanka’s emergence as a strategic pivot in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in the midst of Cold War 2.0 breweing between the US and China. The four-power the US-led Quadrilateral strategic alliance, with India, Japan and Australia in its ranks, firming up its strategies to challenge China’s forays in the Indo-Pacific to ensure freedom of navigation. So in the future, whether Sri Lanka likes it or not, it is likely to find itself in the eye of Cold War 2.0’s strategic storm.
The two-day visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Colombo, in the last week of the month, has to be viewed in this context, regardless of the shrill rhetoric surrounding it. Actually, his visit was preceded by a ‘high powered Chinese delegation’ led by Yang Jiechi, member of the Chinese Communist party’s Politburo and director of the CCP Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission, on a two-day visit. Yang, who leads the top foreign policy making body, met with President Rajapaksa and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. During the meeting he stressed the two countries as strategic cooperation partners should continue to maintain high-level exchanges and consolidate political mutual trust. He added that China will continue to push forward cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and advance cooperation ranging from tottt to tourism, agriculture and education.
Yang’s visit came in the midst of a spat between China-US diplomats in Colombo, after the US Ambassador to Colombo Alaina Teplitz in a media interview criticised Chinese projects in Sri Lanka. She said, “a 2019 World Bank study concluded that more than 60% of China funded BRI projects are allocated to Chinese companies and stressed that tender processes are opaque.” In a strong reaction, the Chinese Embassy called the Ambassador’s statement despicable attempt to manipulate others’ in diplomatic relations, and advised the US quit “the addiction of preaching others and applying double standards.”
The US Secretary of State led the high power delegation to call upon President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Mike Pompeo and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa exchanged their views on a number of areas of bilateral and regional importance. Pompeo expressed the US desire to continue to work closely with Sri Lanka in achieving a high level of economic development. He added that priority will be given to promote US investments in the island. The US was also ready to give a helping hand to the development of tourism under a carefully prepared action plan, as it was a key sector that generated employment and income. In response, President Rajapaksa said Sri Lanka wanted to achieve a high level of economic growth by attracting more foreign investments, rather than obtaining loans. He sought assistance in modernising agriculture
On Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, the President said it was based on neutrality. Relations between Sri Lanka and other nations are determined by several conditions, including historic and cultural relations and development cooperation. The President stressed that he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be. He noted that China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war, and reiterated that Sri Lanka was not caught in a debt trap as a result.
The two sides agreed to further strengthen the defence cooperation already established between the two countries in training and material assistance. Pompeo responded positively when President Rajapaksa emphasised the need to strengthen the coast guard services to combat drug trafficking. Pompeo said that the US wishes to see the Indian Ocean remain a zone of peace. He expressed satisfaction over the existing friendly ties between Sri Lanka and India. President Rajapaksa stated that Sri Lanka also hopes to see peace in the Indian Ocean. Both parties also agreed to work together on human rights issues in the international fora.
However, it was the joint press conference Pompeo addressed along with Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena that captured media headlines. Pompeo lauding Sri Lanka as a sovereign and powerful and strategic partner for the US on the world stage, added it can be a beacon for a free and open Indo-Pacific, in contrast “to what China seeks. We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner,” In both engagements, Pompeo reiterated that the US seeks to strengthen its partnership with democratic, peaceful, prosperous, and fully sovereign Sri Lanka. He also touched upon counter terrorism assistance. It was interesting to note his pointed reference to President Rajapaksa’s victor speech last year, in which the President had stated that he was president of all citizens; Pompeo said “We fully expect that Sri Lanka will fulfil its pledges to take meaningful, concrete steps to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.”
In the emerging strategic scene in the IOR, Sri Lanka cannot escape the harsh realities. This was aptly summed up in an op-ed in Ceylon Today: “Even the efforts of the Quad security grouping promoted by the US to promote a free and independent Asia-Pacific region are India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, Japan, the largest bilateral source of concessional funding to Sri Lanka and Australia, its fifth largest source of tourism arrivals last year.
“Therefore, it’s in Colombo’s interest to consider the multi-country dimensional aspect of Pompeo’s visit to the island, not least the importance of the US as an economic partner, by being the single largest source absorbing the island’s merchandise exports and work towards further expanding economic cooperation between the two countries, for the betterment of the people of Sri Lanka.”
Col R Hariharan, a retire MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.