Every country, including Sri Lanka, is either on China’s to-woo-list for its ambitious overland and maritime Silk Road projects, heavily reliant on cheap Chinese financing, or locked in a territorial dispute with the communist regime
The US and Japan are maneuvering with greater purpose this year to contain an increasingly assertive China in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. From deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea to signing a landmark Logistics Support Agreement with India, the longstanding allies are pressuring Beijing to back down from its controversial policy of erecting military outposts in the contested waters of the South and East China Sea.
Many Pacific Rim nations including Vietnam and the Philippines that have ongoing disputes with China over the atolls that define their maritime influence but cannot directly confront a powerful neighbour and important trading partner, quietly welcome a US foreign policy “pivot” that draws greater American military assets into East Asia to safeguard freedom of navigation. Japan, meanwhile, is tasked with throwing money at China’s regional allies, especially those subsisting on foreign aid, to flip their loyalties and diplomatically isolate Beijing in international fora.
This is where Sri Lanka comes in. After a near decade of pro-China policies under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has retreated to tacit nonalignment in Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure, and may be eyed by Washington and Tokyo as low hanging fruit. President Sirisena himself made history on May 27 when he became the country’s first head of state to participate in the annual G7 Leaders Summit, hosted this year by Ise-Shima, Japan.
At the summit’s so-called Outreach Meeting, Sirisena joined counterparts from emerging economies ranging from Bangladesh to Chad in rubbing shoulders with leaders of arguably the world’s preeminent political and economic bloc. His trip improved significantly in Nagoya two days later, after a one-on-one meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yielded a highly generous $4.2 billion assistance package for Sri Lanka at near-zero interest rates. A few weeks later in Colombo, Abe announced another $175 million grant aimed at improving the capacity of Sri Lanka’s coast guard.
Critics at home, however, are not sold on the notion that Abe’s invitation to Sirisena was simply an acknowledgement of Colombo’s progress in promoting human rights and fiscal discipline over the past 18 months. To them, all roads lead to China, and as proof, they point to the roll call of non-G7 invitees to this year’s outreach meeting. Tellingly, every country, including Sri Lanka, is either on China’s to-woo-list for its ambitious overland and maritime Silk Road projects, heavily reliant on cheap Chinese financing or locked in a territorial dispute with the communist regime.
China’s all-weather ally Pakistan was noticeably absent from the meeting, perhaps because it cannot be bribed away from Beijing’s side. The timing of the outreach meeting, in the background of simmering tensions in the China Sea and US President Barack Obama overturning a half-century ban on arms exports to Beijing’s old rival Vietnam, also foreshadows US-Japanese attempts to isolate China by, among other things, splitting the loyalties of its presumptive Silk Road partners.
But why China? Why has a country that does half a trillion dollars worth of trade with the US and is the EU’s second largest trading partner with no history of sparking conflicts suddenly turned into the G7’s bogey? The answer lies in a hot mess of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, a critical commercial shipping gateway. China, citing its historical sway over these waters, has used a “nine-dash line” since 1947 to mark-off its section of the sea. Rival claimants call this tantamount to bullying, and an infringement of their Exclusive Economic Zones as guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Washington’s interest in Sri Lanka also stems from fears it shares with New Delhi that China is pursuing a triangular approach to maritime hegemony in the Indian Ocean via military agreements with Sri Lanka, its economic corridor partnership with Pakistan, and a maiden naval base in the small Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. India, especially, has no desire to rewind time to November 2014 when two Chinese nuclear submarines were parked across the Palk Strait in a show of defiance by Rajapaksa despite clear instructions from New Delhi to prevent this very scenario.
Then again, how do you say no to your number one benefactor. 94 percent of a total of five billion dollars in Chinese assistance to Sri Lanka between 1971 and 2012 poured in during Rajapaksa’s reign. Naturally, Washington and New Delhi were eager to break this partnership before Sri Lanka became a permanent springboard for China’s military ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
Indeed, when Rajapaksa was finally ousted in the 2015 presidential vote, he squarely blamed both India’s spy agency RAW and pro-US politician and former mentor Chandrika Kumaratunga for willfully sabotaging his reelection bid.
Sri Lanka’s incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe is publicly pro-West, as demonstrated by his order to rigorously audit all Chinese-backed projects on suspicions of corruption upon assuming office in 2015. Soon enough, though, Sri Lanka’s economic woes — compounded by a near 7.5 percent budget deficit — shackled the unity government and estrangement from China was no longer an option. In April, Wickramasinghe, at the end of a four-day trip to China, made an about-face and announced his government’s willingness to play a larger role in the Maritime Silk Road, telling reporters “Our policy is to make Sri Lanka an [economic] hub of the Indian Ocean.”
Sri Lanka, the same month, also petitioned the International Monetary Fund for an emergency $1.5 billion bailout to stave off default. While India seethed at this perceived treachery, it dawned on Washington that incentivising Colombo to consider abandoning China was necessary. Still, even as Japan’s largesse comes at a very handy time for Sirisena and Wickramasinghe, it may not be enough to permanently tack Colombo to America’s corner. Having seen the carnage wrought by the US “national interest” in neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan, Sri Lanka is all too aware of the price regional allies end up paying for Washington’s blinkered militarism.