Perhaps, Sri Lanka is moving from the Silk Road to be a partner of the US pivot to Asia Pacific. Another related development highlights a leap in naval ties. On the eve of Mr. Kerry’s arrival, a delegation of Sri Lankan Navy officers led by Commander Jayantha Perera visited Nimitz class aircraft super carrier Carl Vinson, 200 nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast.
Now that Secretary of State John Kerry having visited Sri Lanka, the new government says it has brought the country back to the ‘center stage’ of the international community. That may sound a bit slavish statement to make, at least, in the eyes of the antiquated leftists (like Vasudeva) and hoi polloi ultra-nationalists (like Wimal Weerawansa). But it has a grain of truth. The dominant powers in the international system wield a special ability to grant recognition to (or to deny that from) other nations, just like Nixon elevated China to a major player in the international system with Sino-US rapprochement in 1972. (Much of the present day success of China dates back to that decision, without that neither economic opening of China, FDIs and technological transfers, nor international standing commensurate to its size were possible.)
So the visit by Mr. Kerry is a seal of approval of the new administration, its democratic reforms, its efforts to build independent institutions, combat hate speech and usher reconciliation. He also said our ‘civil peace needs to be nurtured’, which we know all too well. We also know that very task may not be possible if Rajapaksa sneaks to power through some dubious maneuvering. Therefore, it is interesting when Mr. Kerry said: “We’re also ready to help with asset recovery and the enforcement of anti-corruption rules. Our investigators are prepared to work with your investigators. Our prosecutors are prepared to work with your prosecutors and we commit that any stolen assets in the United States will be returned to their rightful owners.”
Since it is the Rajapaksas and their coterie who have been under investigation for siphoning billions of rupees, Kerry is basically saying that the US would help the new administration to trace ex-president’s money trail. That is a refreshing assurance since the US provided sanctuary to Philippine’s ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, one of the Rajapaksa ilk, until his death. Perhaps, Basil Rajapaksa returned from Los Angeles to get arrested in Colombo, because he read those signs.
Mr. Kerry visited to ‘reset’ the ties, and to extend support for our democratic reforms. So the least we could have expected from him was that he would not over do preaching about democracy and war crimes, to the extent they become not only inconvenient to the new government, but also counter-productive. It is because the government has delivered on some of its important promises. Perhaps, he respected those limits. That is interesting since, the holier-than-thou analysts in a plethora of NGOs and think tanks wanted the US to continue to push for an international war crime investigation. They make those howls to eke a living, just like journalists make a living by writing. But, Sri Lanka cannot afford to allow its soldiers and officers to be hauled before any International Court, due to more practical and less patriotic reasons. Any government that allows it would not last long in power. Nor would our ‘civil peace’ survive a mass discontent of the ethnic majority who are aggrieved by such a decision. Ultra-nationalists would go on the rampage, overwhelm the public discourse and win the support of the large sections of the masses. We would soon have a new government with possibly, Wimal Weerawansa as Prime Minister, and BBS monks as the theoreticians. Recall the chaos during and after the signing of the Indo-Lanka agreement. Another example is the Ranil Wickremesinghe-administration which went an extra mile to appease the LTTE in search for peace in 2004. It was toppled in a constitutional coup and then lost the snap elections.
Perhaps the greatest challenge (and by extension, the threat) to the new administration is the maximalist demands of the Tiger rump and their assorted civil society groups. Such demands are playing into the hands of the ultra-nationalists and ruble rousers back home in Sri Lanka.
Whether our deepened relationship with the US would defend the new administration from such challenges or make it further vulnerable to them is open to see.
Mr. Kerry himself agrees with the necessity of defeating the LTTE: “It is sometimes necessary to go to war, despite the pain it brings. For all of my country’s disagreements with the previous government in Sri Lanka over how it fought the LTTE, we clearly understood the necessity of ridding this country of a murderous terrorist group and the fear that it sowed.” Also, that he visited the Kelaniya Temple may be a sign that the US understands that it also has to care for the sensitivities of the majority.
There are other interesting remarks in Mr. Kerry’s speech at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute he announced that two governments will launch annual partnership dialogues. Then he was quick to add: “ We’re not doing this as part of any global countering or whatever – make your choices.” By implication, he was referring to China and the US pivot to the Asia Pacific.
Then he made another remark, a pretty hackneyed one, often used to implicate China on its territorial and maritime disputes with a host of countries (mainly Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines) in the South China and East China sea.
“The United States and Sri Lanka are also working together to oppose the use of intimidation or force to assert a territorial or maritime claim by anyone. And we reject any suggestion that freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea and airspace are somehow privileges granted by big states to small ones. They’re not privileges; they’re rights. And these principles bind all nations equally.”
So Mr. Kerry says Sri Lanka is working together with the US on this regard. It is interesting since, Sri Lanka has never made any official comment on the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China sea. Rather, until the advent of the new administration, Colombo has been an enthusiastic partner of China’s 21st century maritime Silk Road. That enthusiasm has dampened now and the Colombo Port City, which could have been a linchpin in the Silk Road remains suspended.
They were ferried from the Katunayake Airport by a US Navy C-2 aircraft. There are other signs of renewed military cooperation. During the second term of the Rajapaksa administration, the US ceased most of its military cooperation with the Sri Lankan forces and a number of senior officers who were nominated for advanced military course in the US were blacklisted on the grounds of purported human rights violations. Washington’s urgency to consolidate its presence in the region in the wake of China’s rise and the eagerness of the new administration in Colombo to be cozy with the US suggest that Sri Lanka would, in the long run, move away from the Silk road to become, perhaps not so overt partner of the US pivot in the Asia Pacific. India, which initially snubbed those calls to be part of the Pivot (Leon Penetta, the then US Defence Secretary described India as the ‘lynchpin’ of the pivot) is now gradually moving towards that direction under the more ambitious Modi administration.
If a future UNP government which is hopefully elected in the next election, would choose to follow suit, that is not a bad idea. Sri Lanka’s place lies with the democracies. The failure in the past to take side with democracies and instead of opting to a non-alignment and a closeted socialist economic model are at the root of our long persisting economic worries. However, there is a hitch. The global finance market has undergone a drastic transformation recently.
While the then Soviet Union had never been an economic contender for the US and the West, the new China is. Beijing has deep pockets. Sri Lanka will have to be mindful of economic impact such a re balancing of the foreign policy would have on our economy, both medium and long term. After all, the proof of pudding is in the eating. It will be long time before we see the fruits of our reset relations with the US. If it does not translate into economic prosperity (or if it compromises very sources of economic prosperity), it would be no better than Sirimavo Bandaranaike holding the Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976, while the country’s economy was in tatters, thanks to her government’s static economic policies. What Sri Lanka badly need is less preaching on democracy and more FDI.
Our debt to GDP ratio is 75% and no longer allows excessive external commercial borrowing for infrastructure development, which had been a driver of economic growth under the Rajapaksas. Sri Lanka needs FDIs for export expansion and to build infrastructure. Our FDI inflows in 2014 was $ 1 billion. If Sri Lanka is to maintain a healthy 7-8 per cent growth for the next 10-15 years, FDIs have to be increased by manifolds, for investment to reach current 29% to 34%, at a minimum.
Any student of history of political economy knows that democracy and civil liberties are not sustainable without prosperity. In order to consolidate our recent democratic gains, any future government should work to usher economic growth. If the US can help us in that, Mr. Kerry’s visit is worth it.
Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @ RangaJayasuriya on Twitter.