With the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1991, the US assumed the role of the world’s sole super power and global policeman. Up until this time the world had been divided into two power blocs, - the Soviet bloc and the other comprising the US and its NATO partners. The two blocs were in constant confrontation with each other.
This in turn led to smaller nation states not aligned to either of the power blocs and not happy to join with either of the the global powers, coming together in the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. The forum consisted of 120 developing countries not aligned with, or against the major powers.It was the largest grouping of states worldwide only second to the United Nations.
It created a space for poor and often very small countries who did not want to become followers of any of the big powers; to pursue an independent foreign policy and providing an alternative world order to redress existing inequities. Many of these states had but recently overthrown colonial domination and the Non-Aligned Movement was staunchly anti-imperialist and closer to Soviet bloc which too was anti imperialist.
With the fall of the Soviet bloc, the non aligned group lost a pillar of strength as the Soviets were a countervailing force to the US. With no one to stand up to the now single global superpower, the Non-Aligned Movement began losing its influence and led to the near disintegration of the movement as a body.
At around this same time, with little fanfare, China had begun emerging as a global power. China’s emergence as a global power has raised concerns in the US, its western allies and Japan as well as in India regarding perceptions of Chinese intentions in the Indian ocean region as well as in the Far East.
It is in this light we have to view Sri Lanka’s location in the nautical corridor between the east and west, which makes it the hub of the Indian Ocean. Especially the country’s position in some of the most important sea lanes of communication in the world.
According to the Journal of the ‘Indian Ocean Region’, more than 80% of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through these sea lanes. The British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy 2017 reveals, the Indian Ocean holds 16.8% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 27.9% of proven natural gas reserves.
Today, China now a global superpower, has invested heavily in Sri Lanka. China also holds a long-term lease in the port of Hambantota. It holds a long-term lease of Colombo’s ‘Port City’ rousing India’s ire as Sri Lanka is situated in India’s backyard so-to-say.
India has acquired interests in the oil farms in Trincomalee, and is expanding its footprint via Colombo port’s West Terminal - a literal hop-step-and-jump away from the Chinese controlled Port City. India has also protested and has pressured the Sri Lanka government to put on hold the development of a wind farm at Analai Thivu - an island off Jaffna and an ADB funded project for power generation.
The US is pressurizing Lanka to sign a MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact for establishment of four investment corridors and the development of road network extending from Trincomalee to Colombo and Colombo to Hambantota, and also to Oluvil in the east and Kilinochchi in north. The project is seen in some quarters as a tool to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative.
At the same time, the US and its western allies brought charges of alleged war crimes committed by the armed forces, during the war against the LTTE before the UNHRC in an attempt to twist the arm of the state into changing its foreign policy. With the weakening of the Non-Aligned Movement after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, and India’s moving into the US fold, smaller nation states like Sri Lanka have become akin to pawns in the big power manoeuvering and manipulation.
Sri Lanka today is caught up in the middle of big power geopolitical struggles.
In a way, our own governments were partially responsible for this situation. They attempted to play one big power against the other. A mere ‘halmessa’ (sprat) amidst wars between sharks, the outcome was predictable
Today with no Non-Aligned Movement to fall back on, Sri Lanka is caught between a rock and a hard place with few if any real friends to stand up for it.