New President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meeting Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Colombo. Also in the picture is India’s High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu.
Last Saturday’s election was more free and fair than the 2015 presidential election in more than one way. Violence and election law violations saw a drastic reduction during this election when compared to the 2015 election. Also praiseworthy is the environment-friendly or plastic-free campaign initiated by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna candidate Gotabya Rajapaksa and followed by others. Yet the election, some say, also stands out for another reason: Less foreign power intervention. But this is contestable.
It was no secret that big powers played a behind-the-scenes role in the 2015 presidential election, with the United States and India favouring Maithripala Sirisena while China banked on the reelection of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
One of the key features of the Rajapaksa politics is they learn lessons from their past mistakes. That there was little or no US or Indian interference in last Saturday’s election indicated that the Rajapaksas had done their homework well and won their confidence.
In international relations, non-interference by foreign powers is also regarded as interference, when non-interference brings about the desired results to those countries. Thus the absence of visible interference does not mean that the just-concluded election was interference-free. Their interference came through non-interference.
It goes without saying that Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean is a cynosure of major powers. For Sri Lanka, it not only an economic advantage but also a persistent worry based on fears that the country could be a major battleground if rival world powers decide to sort out their differences through military means.
The new president is not unaware of the geopolitical power games in the Indian Ocean. In his speech on Monday, he shifted from Sinhala to English briefly to drive home his foreign policy message to lurking big powers.
President Rajapaksa sounded categorical when he said Sri Lanka would remain friendly with all nations but would remain neutral so as to stay out of conflicts between international powers. He indicated the new government had taken the foreign policy challenge seriously.
Sri Lanka has been a non-aligned nation since 1956. During the cold war period, Sri Lanka benefited from both power blocs. But with the end of the cold war, non-alignment lost its sheen and most developing countries were compelled to line up before western bloc nations to get economic aid. But the situation began to change by 2005, with China gradually staking a claim for world power status.
Arguably, a non-aligned foreign policy is the best, but the ground reality may tend to push the new government to side with one world power or another, much to the chagrin of other powers. This can be avoided through skillful statecraft.
The new president is taking over a country drowning in a sea of debt. The country has been going through economic stagnation for the past several years. The political instability, the lack of investor confidence, the sluggish decision-making process, natural and man-made disasters that occurred at regular intervals, ethnic tensions, the 2018 constitutional coup and, the worst of all, the Easter Sunday terror attacks contributed to the stunted economic performance. For the new government, the challenge on the economic front is gigantic. Next year and in 2021, the country has to pay back large loan instalments.
The Treasury is virtually empty. It was only two months ago that the Treasury had put state institutions on austerity notice, imposing expenditure restrictions and travel bans. To revive the economy, the country needs a major investment boost. A good economic vision, a commitment to uphold the rule of law and internal peace devoid of ethnic tensions can help revive the economy and, in the long run, reduce the country’s overdependence on foreign powers.
A smart government can certainly convert the country’ geostrategic position into its economic advantage, without compromising the nation’s territorial integrity. This is a major challenge facing the new government, with China, India and the United States rushing to beat each other in sending congratulatory messages to the new president.
As has been before, Sri Lanka’s saviour will be China. Beijing is likely to increase its economic assistance to Sri Lanka under its Belt-and-Road Initiative to protect its multibillion-dollar investments and its strategic foothold.
There appears to be a marked shift in the United States’ position regarding the Rajapaksas. Perhaps, it is of the belief that its national interest will be served better under a strong government rather than a weak government despite pro-democracy credentials.
The US has found in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a leader who enjoys the people’s trust and, therefore, it probably believes that under his government, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the Millennium Corporation Challenge Agreement could be signed with some minor amendments. The US$ 480 million grant under the MCC agreement is too tempting for the new government to resist as its infusion into the national economy can get the economy moving once again. Will the people protest? No, because they believe patriotic leaders won’t betray the country.
But how China would react to Sri Lanka’s close military ties with the US or how the new government would keep the balance between the two world powers is a major question, the answer to which will come only in the coming months, perhaps after the parliamentary elections next year.
Then there is the third big power – India. The Rajapaksas had a special working relationship with India, which has also made big economic and political investments in Sri Lanka. Cooperation with India is vital in the battle against terrorism. During the previous Rajapaksa regime, Indian affairs were handled by a handpicked high-level troika, which included Gotabaya Rajapaksa. However, many Indian analysts then had few kind words for Sri Lanka as China’s presence in Sri Lanka kept growing. But this time around, it appears that both the US and India are confident that the new government would be prudent enough not to act against their national interests. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to the new president to visit India -- first made during a phone conversation he had and then by the visiting India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar -- is more than symbolic. It indicates how important Sri Lanka is to India as a strategic partner. Not to be left out, China’s president Xi Jinping has also extended an invitation to the new president to visit Beijing. Amid this power games, whether Sri Lanka can stay neutral and please every world power all the time is a question, the answer to which could be seen in the coming months.
Another major foreign policy test for the new government is the March sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Sri Lanka’s armed forces have been accused of committing war crimes. With world big powers wooing the new government, President Rajapaksa is in a strong position to extricate the country from this process either by challenging the UNHRC to do what it can or by ceasing to be a member of the UNHRC as Israel and the US have done. If the US is keen to work with the new government, will it withdraw its resolution against Sri Lanka? We will have to wait and see.