By Daya Gamage –
Having watched developments in South Asia in which the Peoples Republic of China is using its economic and military hegemony to sway literal nations such as Sri Lanka in the region toward it, the Biden administration is taking a stronger approach to combat the ‘Chinese Expansion’ – most recently seen in Sri Lanka – in nominating a state department career diplomat to head its diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka who has a profile of being a hardliner to combat Chinese economic-military motives in the Indo-Pacific.
The U.S. Foreign Service official who was born in South Korea, one of the Squad nations along with India, U.S. and Australia grouped together to maneuver against China, and most recently in a strong testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee outlining the maneuvers to check China, will now be stationed in Colombo.
The Biden White House nominated Julie Chung to be the next ambassador to Sri Lanka. A relatively young (49) but vast experience behind her, Ms. Chung will be entrusted to work within the confines of a soon-to-be-law “Ensuring American Global Leadership Engagement’ or EAGLE Act, a legislation calling for the revitalization of American diplomacy, leadership, and investments globally in response to the policy challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China. The bill presented to the US Congress on May 25 authorizes an increase in US Department of State resources devoted to the Indo-Pacific, and presents a blueprint to enhance American engagement. This was intended to expand American diplomatic efforts abroad in an effort to boost the United States’ ability to compete with China.
The Secretary of State, the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development and other relevant agency heads – under this EAGLE Act – are authorized to co-finance infrastructure, resilience, and environmental adaptation projects that advance the development objectives of the United States overseas and provide viable alternatives to projects that would otherwise be included within China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The new American Ambassador Julie Chung will now be entrusted to work to fulfill the tasks of the EAGLE Act in relation to Sri Lanka.
Undoubtedly Washington was displeased with the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s skepticism of the Millennial Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) – a Western -Eastern Province targeted land-based economic package that skeptics viewed it as a covert military maneuver – and putting the strategic SOFA proposal that could have activated the 83-page ACSA agreement signed by the previous Sirisena regime in 2017 on hold – simultaneously awarding concessions to China on Colombo Port City and other infrastructure projects, Washington views, as a military foothold for the PRC.
Washington in fact paved a safe passage to U.S. citizen Gotabaya Rajapaksa placing no obstacles whatsoever when he applied for the renunciation of the citizenship. Whether the renunciation was granted before he submitted his nomination papers to contest Sri Lanka’s presidency or the renunciation of the U.S. citizenship was never raised as an issue when nomination papers were presented before the Chairman of the Election Commission is secondary to what Washington’s motives were: the applicant was Sri Lanka’s defense secretary during the brutal war (2006-2009) against separatist-terrorist Tamil Tigers that Washington viewed with mixed feelings – part of an attempt to suppress Tamil grievances; in a classified diplomatic cable (later revealed by WikiLeaks) sent under the signature of American Ambassador Patricia Butenis in December 2009 declaring him, his brothers and army commander Fonseka as persons who committed war crimes; by the time he applied for the renunciation there were many other military commanders, including the current army commander Shavendra Silva – were debarred from entering the American soil as the USG declared them as persons who committed war crimes and violated international humanitarian law; the role played by Gotabaya Rajapaksa was never investigated by the War Crimes and Human Rights Division of the US Department of Homeland Security – as the normal procedure under US federal laws when renunciations are before the USG – to award him easy passage to be nominated and win the presidency of Sri Lanka.
The quid pro quo was the MCC and the SOFA. Sri Lankan administration disappointed Washington in not fulfilling both that were vital policy projects of Washington at a time it was expanding it’s military might in Indo-Pacific, a region in which Sri Lanka is located in a strategic place.
With the EAGLE Act before the U.S. Congress, and Washington’s displeasure toward Sri Lanka, the Biden White House, on the recommendation of Secretary of State Tony Blinken, nominated a career diplomat who has links to South Korea – a QUOD member – and vociferous opponent of the Chinese maneuvers in Indo-Pacific to be the next ambassador to Sri Lanka.
“China had been viewed for years as a regional issue for Asia, but we are acutely aware that its actions have global implications that require global coordination and action. There are extensive linkages between the Indo-Pacific and the Western Hemisphere, through trade, diaspora communities, and multilateral groupings like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). We have been leading an interagency effort to implement National Security Strategy and Vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. At the highest level, we have two strategic objectives: reinforce the position of the United States as the region’s partner of choice and counter China’s malign activities because they threaten hemispheric prosperity, security, and democracy”, said Julie Chung, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 17, 2020 in a testimony “Advancing U.S. Engagement and Countering China in the Indo-Pacific and Beyond”.
She further noted before Senate “Their investments in the region frequently come with excessive debt and opaque terms, low-quality infrastructure, and environmental damage, and they crowd out local development with an influx of Chinese materials, equipment, and workers”.
This is a clear signal to the Sri Lankan administration of Washington’s seriousness in the Indo-Pacific region; Sri Lanka’s strategic location in it; PRC’s encroachment in the Indo-Pacific encircling literal states such as Sri Lanka; and its combative attitude in sending a diplomat who has ties to the QUOD and rhetorical attitude toward China gaining a foothold.