By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Strategic misconceptions and foreign policy misperceptions
As an island, Sri Lanka’s history has been shaped by the dialectic of the internal and external, with the latter playing a decisive role for prolonged periods. These external forces and factors have primarily been the neighbouring powers and the colonial ones.
Today, no three states have greater importance for Sri Lanka’s future than India, China and the USA, though not in any inevitable order. What is alarming is that the Sri Lankan policy makers seem to understand none of these powers.
Let’s start with the seemingly easiest and most unproblematic, China. The Ministry of External Affairs no longer has ‘China hands’ as it once did in the persons of Jayantha Dhanapala and Charlie Mahendran. Even if the Ministry had such human resources they are likely be ignored just as the US State Department and even the CIA’s professionals were by the blinkered, hawkish Cheney-Rumsfeld duo.
The ruling elite seems to have no understanding of the foreign policy-making process in China, and that civilian political authority is absolute, in line with the principle that “the party commands the gun and not the gun, the party”. Any Sri Lankan policy based on signals, accurately read or more likely misread, from any single component of the Chinese power-structure, however influential, ignoring the collegiate character of policy-making and strategic calculation, is doomed to fail disastrously.
Sri Lankan policy makers, who brandish the China card, possibly to the embarrassment of the Chinese, do not seem to have an accurate estimation of the actual value of that vital card. It is far from unlimited. With the best will in the world, China can protect Sri Lanka only so far. Unlike in the case of Pakistan, there is no contiguous overland route. China does not have and will not have for many more years, perhaps decades, the naval and aerial capacity to project power into the Indian Ocean in anything like the manner needed to offset the naval assets of India or the USA, let alone any combination of the two. The Indian navy on the other hand, is already moving in the waters of South East Asia and the Far East.
It is, in any case, highly improbable that China would bruise its relations with India over anything but its own core interests within its own sphere of influence. The rules that the competing and co operating Asian Big Powers play by is that neither China nor India will step on each other’s toes within their respective spheres of influence. Sri Lanka just isn’t important enough for China to do so.
Within the worldview of Sri Lanka’s movers and shakers, the geostrategic location of the island gives it enormous value and virtually open-ended bargaining and balancing power. They regard it as being a permanent seller’s market. This is a dangerous delusion.
A crucial geostrategic location is what attracted the colonial powers and their oppression. Occupying a critical location can mean that you have a target painted on your back. In the grand contest between the USA and China in Asia and obviously the Indian Ocean, a contention in which India will play its part not as a puppet of the USA but as a quasi-ally or autonomous strategic partner, it would be well to bear this in mind.
It is truly a pity that the Melian dialogue – that between the Athenians and the people of the strategic island of Melos — as reconstructed by Thucydides, would mean nothing to any Sri Lankan decision-maker.
The Sri Lankan power-elite fails to understand its gargantuan neighbour, India. If it did, it would have known that the best chance we had of securing India’s strategic support was while the Congress was securely in office and before the dawning of the prospect of a coalition at the centre influenced by a Tamil Nadu hostile to Sri Lanka.
Colombo also fails to comprehend that India is an open, dynamic democracy in which public opinion about events in Sri Lanka — public opinion in Delhi and not just Chennai — can impact negatively on India’s stance.
The most glaring evidence of the Sri Lankan power-elite’s misperception of India is the entire discourse about the 13th Amendment. From a purely domestic or internal perspective the 13th Amendment may be good or bad, but that is an entirely secondary matter from a Realist standpoint.
What is most germane is that it is the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment that swung India from a patron and supporter of the armed Tamil Eelam movement to an opponent of it. If that is removed, dismantled or diluted to the point of meaninglessness, how will Delhi balance off pressures from Tamil Nadu?
Surely, the high-level advocacy in Colombo of dismantling the 13th Amendment, weakens Delhi in its equation with Tamil Nadu over Sri Lanka, reduces the prospects of support for Sri Lanka from an increasingly influential India in the world arena, and could reverse India’s attitude to the Tamil nationalist movement in Sri Lanka, leading perhaps to a re-opening of the ‘pin thalam’ — the ‘rear base’ — in Tamil Nadu, not for armed terrorism but for political secessionism and irredentism.
Sri Lanka’s ruling collective utterly fails to understand the United States as well. Take the current discourse about Secretary of State John Kerry. Of course the Kerry-Lugar report was an excellent one but that deal was on the table in late 2009 and Sri Lanka failed to pick it up (despite my urging in print and in private that we do so).
Since then the Government of Sri Lanka has behaved in such an illiberal manner that has weakened the hand of those in the US system who were willing to give Sri Lanka the time, space and the benefit of the doubt. Given US public opinion and opinion among the Democrats on the Hill, it will be rather difficult for the new Secretary of State to automatically press a re-set button.
John Kerry is a Democratic politician, with a razor-sharp mind, a fine military record and strong ethical views (which is why he joined the anti-Vietnam war movement). While he has been quick to recognise the historic military achievement on the Sri Lankan armed forces, he will be revolted by Sri Lankan invocations of the Bush-era War on Terror doctrine that in such a war, anything goes.
The ruling coalition in Colombo has learnt nothing from the experience of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike. While the Cold War was still raging Washington under the Nixon administration viewed her centre-left coalition with suspicion. This was drastically reversed and Mrs. Bandaranaike was a State guest by 1972.
Two men were responsible: the brilliant intellectual Cold warrior Prof Robert Strauss-Hupe who was US Ambassador in Colombo, and Neville Kanakaratne, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s superb choice of Ambassador to Washington. The highly literate and articulate Ambassador Kanakaratne opened doors in Washington by his off-the cuff lectures at the most prestigious venues such as the Woodrow Wilson centre and by his personal friendship with the heads of such institutions.
Today, Sri Lanka is flying blind in Washington, to the degree that in 2008 and in 2012, Colombo was one of the few capitals on the planet that was not only expecting but actually hoping for a defeat for Barack Obama and operating on that assumption. Relying on AIPAC assessments and reports from Sri Lankan expatriates does not make for intelligent evaluation.
Three large blind-spots
Thus Sri Lanka’s foreign and strategic policymaking has three large blind-spots: India, China and the USA. When these blind spots converge, the state which is now blinkered will be as if blindfolded, while our enemies within the Tamil Diaspora and in Tamil Nadu will be taking aim at us. Instead of intelligently combating them, we shall lash out blindly.
Why is Sri Lankan policy and policymaking in the lamentable state it is; a state that enhances our strategic vulnerability and risks the hard won gains of the war? To my mind the reasons are two-fold, and two fold rather than two distinct reasons because the two factors are interconnected.
Firstly, our rulers have forgotten Sun Tzu’s injunction ‘know yourself, know your enemy’. When they look in the mirror they do not see themselves or us as we are, they see Israel. This dangerous delusion confuses this small island which is vulnerable to a naval cordon sanitaire and whose significant military assets can be neutralised in a single strike by its giant neighbour, with the most powerful military entity in the Middle East. It confuses a state which has a powerful ethnic lobby in the world’s sole superpower with Sri Lanka which has and can have nothing of the sort.
President Obama warned Israel that time and demography were not in its favour. Without the image of being a durable oasis of western style democracy in a tyrannical Middle East, the commonality of cultural heritage (‘Judeo-Christian’) with the West, the Jewish lobby in the US, the indelible global memory of the Holocaust, the open commitment of the US to Israel (which includes top-of-the-line weapons systems) and the Israeli nuclear weapons stockpile, Israel’s position would shift from isolation to strategic untenability.
Sri Lanka has not a single of Israel’s advantages. It cannot be any kind of model or inspiration for our conduct towards our Tamil citizens in the former conflict areas, the region or the world.
Colombo’s current delusions of being an Israeli type garrison state, seem to regard China as being to Sri Lanka what the US is to Israel as security patron and diplomatic guarantor, though their respective strategic capacities and global reach are vastly different.
Secondly, our policy-makers neither understand the concept and value of ‘soft power’ nor the limits of their own ‘hard power’. They do not know that even the USA, the state which posses more hard power or kinetic power than everyone else on the planet, has an acute awareness of soft power, and that the key to American leadership is the combination of the two.
Our leaders also do not understand that ‘soft power’ is the power of voluntary attraction and emulation, not of coercive compliance, and thus it resides in the eye of the beholder, in the eyes of others, of the world’s public, not in one’s own eyes when one gazes narcissistically in the mirror.
Worse still, the Sri Lankan leaders do not understand the limits of their State’s own hard power, in relation to both the soft power of other communities (Tamils, Muslims, Christians) and the hard power of other states (India, the USA). In short, they do not understand the balance of power outside their shores. They do not grasp the larger reality in its tangible and intangible dimensions.