The Presidential Elections campaign is in full swing in Sri Lanka, with a record number of candidates and two promising candidates from the two mainstream parties. The election battle is clearly heading for an epic showdown in the coming weeks, yet the topics, narratives and the themes brought by front runners are domestically focused and increasingly narrowing down on national security and ancillary themes.
So far there is very little brought out on foreign policy and no candidate has managed to justify their policies in clearly demonstrating their ability to explain the highly complex and transforming global currents and regional challenges. Abstract policies that argue about Sri Lanka’s place in the world have no real meaning if one cannot clearly articulate and respond and provide their vision and policy inclinations on what is to be done.
Sri Lankans are trapped in a myopic and repetitive election cycle trance where the belief is hope through a cleanse, similar to the hype of draining the swamp mantra during 2016 US presidential elections. Such fixations generate a deep inward dive in political decision making and political selections exposing the country to volatility of external forces and exogenous shocks.
The election is fought on the fundamental premise of who will successfully provide the quintessential public good of national security to the country. We are witnessing a very interesting drift towards the militarization of the election narrative and the acceptance of militarism as the political subconscious of the voter. While the consequences of such a situation is grave, it is also a product of the abject failures of liberal projects and the most recent good governance blunders.
Ideology of the National security State itself is contested and there are competing and converging opinions on the political vitality and how benign it can be to deliver government services. The fact remains, contemporary national security does not and cannot be implemented or advanced without the sound comprehension of the regional, global security and strategic environments. This article will focus on one dimension of this complex environment, India-China relations.
India and China both inherited new leaderships half a decade ago and ever since there have been significant number of domestic transformations in all aspects of economic, political, public and cultural life of the two countries. President Xi and Prime Minister Modi both break always from the conventional leaderships of the two counties and both enjoyed tremendous domestic standings. President Xi managed to shave off the term limit to a Chinese President and Modi returned to power for the second time bolstered by a resounding electoral victory this year. In 2013, Xi Jingping announced his grand strategy of Belt and Road Initiative, a novel type of infrastructure driven connectivity project that no country in the modern world has envisaged to implement. China’s new found prosperity, economic advancement, strategic restructuring of its armed forces enabled it to actually embark on this project which is still controversial and has alarmed the geo political western bloc. Sri Lanka is one node in this large connectivity plan and that makes China collide with India as there is a clear overlap of their security peripheries.
Sino-Indian relations were at downhill most the last five years, as Pakistan totally drifted towards China’s orbit, there were literal military stand offs in contested border regions such as Doklam and China’s initial BRI pushed looked relentless, yet despite all these tensions since 2018 there is also thawing that is taking place. A cooling down of sorts between the two regional rivals.
Cooling of Sino-Indian Relations
In 2018 the two leaders of the nation met in Wuhan in the Hubei region, which was dubbed an informal meeting between Modi and Xi. Despite critiques that the meeting did not lead to substantial agreements on addressing pressing issues such as controversial border disputes, and other political tensions. Analysts argue that it provided a forum for the two leaders to meet sans the pressures to reach fixed agreements, opening a comfortable space for further engagement.
Analysts dubbed this new entente as Wuhan Spirit, as it represents a mutual understanding between the two formidable and new generation of political leaders in Asia, where they both agreed that it is vital for India and China to maintain a strong bilateral relationship given the increasing volatility of the global order. Such understanding can contain or mitigate any dispute that may arise between the two Asian rivals. President Xi visited India over the weekend which is round two of the informal meetings the two leaders started last year.
"The elected President has to confront the realities of the global security volatility"
From a Sri Lankan perspective it is important to understand the implications of this emerging trend, whilst there is an increasing strategic rivalry between the two nations, with increasing militarization of the ocean, and outer space the regularizing of a high level leadership dialogue can have significant effects for the respective countries and to other nations in the region., Especially in Sri Lanka where both countries have clearly indicated their foreign policy interests of furthering and deepening engagement.
The initiation of these informal meetings as an annual feature signifies that India and China implicitly agree and accept there are certain global shifts that are driving them towards collaboration abandoning a zero-sum status. The first is clearly the signs of a global order that is unravelling and an embattled American leadership both home and abroad. Secondly, given the global volatility and in a region which needs to reap the benefits of prosperity of Asia’s rise all regional powers must act responsibly and avoid unnecessary confrontations which can have a destabilizing effect on the whole region.
Finally, both have clearly articulated regional interests and strategies that bring them into overlaps be it China’s BRI or India’s Act East policy. These two countries are shaping not just the regional political landscape they are actively engaged in bi laterals with many Asian nations, thus giving them deep access to Asia proper.
Beyond Presidential Poll
While it is important that Presidential elections be subject to analysis by journalists and scholars, there has to be at least a reflection of what is beyond and what is external to us. It is worrying to see less and less of a comprehension of how the world external to us is transforming. Domestic political compulsions have to a certain extent completely shut our minds from externalities, from the coming energy wars, US-China rivalries to an outbreak of global militancy if the current military operation by Turkey in Syria may yield so many unanticipated consequences. We still are to learn lessons from the Easter Sunday bombings, yet the only outcome visible is the political polarization and communal tensions. The most important lesson of coping, responding, deradicalizing and understanding modern terrorism seem fringe themes and topics.
Whoever the next President in the country is driven to power by populism or nationalist surge, they must confront the realities of the global security volatility. The focus in this analysis of how we manage China and India in a time of a cooling their own relations will be even more complicated than when we were trying to frame foreign policy priorities when there was an intense rivalry. Sri Lanka cannot ignore the geo strategic fatalism of our location and India’s continuous interest in Sri Lanka and we cannot pretend for a second that China’s role in our region will recede anytime soon. This is a snapshot visualizing a single dimension of the regional and global complexities Sri Lanka must confront. A future Sri Lankan leader must be able to see far and wide and make choices that may have far reaching consequences. Are the contenders ready? Time will tell. Are a majority Sri Lankans aware of the significance of global transformations and their impact on our domestic processes? Appallingly, No!