US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa attend a meeting in Colombo
These are times when Lanka’s moment of glory in the international scene has much to do with her geostrategic beauty than her achievements, if there are any recently in terms of democracy or discoveries. Even the achievements we bragged about in pandemic control measures have now come to naught, yet little Lanka sits like a shining star in the international forum with big powers making overtures for marriage.
She is like princess Jasmine in the Arabian Nights tale of Aladdin. Her hand in marriage was sought by many a powerful prince who tried to lure her with gifts of gold and precious stones. In Lanka’s case, China, the United States and India are the big-time competitors.
But real politics is different from fairy tales. It is made of strategies, shrewdness and all kinds of survival tricks in addition to coercion and intimidation. There are predators and preys. Identifying the predator and staying out of its reach is the foreign policy challenge small nations such as Sri Lanka face. The phrase ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ is a timely advice to strategically placed small nations.
Needless to stress there’s no free lunch in the kind of politics linked to the official visit of the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Sri Lanka on Tuesday and week’s earlier the visit of a high-level Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi, a high ranking politburo member of the Communist Party.
The visits came against the backdrop of growing hostilities between the US and China and well-calculated moves towards a military alliance formation in the Indian Ocean region. Informally known as the Quadrilateral or the Quad, the military alliance — the US, India, Japan and Australia— is touted as the Indo-Pacific version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
Last month, the Maldives also signed a security pact with the US in what was seen an endorsement of not only the US-India joint policing of the Indian Ocean but also India’s Neighbourhood First doctrine and SAGAR — Security and Growth for All in the Region — policy.
The hostile vibes between China and the US-India alliance swelled by serval notches this week when the US and India signed in New Delhi yet another strategic pact known as Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) which will enable India to access US military satellite information on troop, ship, submarine, missile and drone movements of rival nations such as China. The agreement was signed during Pompeo’s and Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s visit to India for the 2+2 dialogue at foreign and defence ministry levels.
A US-China war of words also preceded Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka, following the US’ public advice to Sri Lanka that it should make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity and economic partnership with the US. An angry China hit back telling the US that it’s none of its business to tell Sri Lanka what to do and whom to associate with.
The animus continued with anti-China rhetoric forming a key part of the speeches and interviews given by Pompeo in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and probably also Indonesia, his final destination in the five-day tour of Asia. He was the second Secretary of State to visit Sri Lanka in five years after John Kerry during the Barack Obama presidency which devised the Pivot to Asia policy aimed at containing China.
“The Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner,” Pompeo said during a news conference in Colombo on Wednesday, promising Sr Lanka yet to be revealed investments. In an immediate retort, China’s Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times dismissed Pompeo’s remark as nonsensical stigmatization of China and said it should be rejected by not only Sri Lanka but most countries along the routes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Reflecting the official China line, the Global Times article’s author, the Shanghai Social Sciences Academy International Relations expert Hu Zhiyong said Sri Lanka is at a significant location of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and the economic interests that the country gets from cooperating with China are something that it has never gained from either the US or India. “By using Cold War-style ideological tricks, Pompeo will fail to instigate those countries against China,”he said.
In Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China and Sri Lanka as traditional friendly neighbors “have been developing bilateral relations based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and conducting friendly cooperation based on equal consultation and mutual benefits, which has substantively improved the well-being of people in Sri Lanka.”
Pompeo’s rhetoric and China’s retorts are part of the new Great Game in South Asia, just as the 19th century Great Game politics of colonial powers Britain and Russia over their effort to bring strategically important Afghanistan, which was for the former the gateway to Central Asia and for the latter to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
The South Asian Great Game is not only aimed at compelling Sri Lanka to abandon its neutrality and align with one power bloc or the other, but also aimed at controlling the Indo-Pacific region with its two huge oceans. Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota port, seen as a vantage point to monitor the Indian Ocean, assumes added significance given the likelihood of the simmering tensions in the South China Sea spilling over to this part of the Indian Ocean.
The Pompeo visit is part of this Great Game and it is probably designed to find out Sri Lanka’s position whether it will stand with the democratic powers led by the US and India or with a tyrannical or anti-democratic force like China. For years, the US has been using conventional and non-conventional coercion on Sri Lanka to force it to sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) or an updated Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). But Sri Lankan government’s reliance on China to obtain easy finance at whatever interest rate and the ruling party’s campaigns against these agreements, probably with or without a Chinese input, to win elections have put the government in a Catch-22 situation. This is because China may be an all weather financier to invest billions of dollars in Sri Lanka but the US has been Sri Lanka’s biggest export market and could impose sanctions on Sri Lanka for non-compliance with United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions or on allegations of human rights violations.
Sri Lanka probably finds itself in a position it no longer can cite its policy of neutrality, as emphasized by Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardene at the joint media conference with Pompeo, to appease the US. However, Sri Lanka has managed to buy time till the next dialogue in Washington some time next year, while winking at China. This is no neutrality.