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Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean, and the New Era of Great Power Competition

“We must not return to the age of great power rivalries. Asia in rivalry will hold us back; Asia in cooperation will shape the century.” 

– Pankaj Saran, deputy national security adviser of India, at The Indian Ocean: Defining our Future conference in Colombo (2018) 

As the sponsor of the 1971 United Nations resolution 2832 for an Indian Ocean Zone for Peace, introduced by the visionary Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake, Sri Lanka watches, with cautious optimism, the hope of reliving the reality of a Zone of Peace. While the deputy national security adviser of India, Pankaj Saran, has advised the region to keep away from great power rivalries, a realist perspective would suggest that, in the present geopolitical environment, rivalry is inevitable.

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The 2017 National Security Strategy released by the United States describes a new era of “great power competition” as foreign nations have begun to “reassert their influence regionally and globally…contesting [America’s] geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.”

Realists like the University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer and numerous geopolitical thinkers argue that China’s rise lies with its geographical advantage. To keep the dragon at bay, the United States will use a defensive strategy of containment in three ways, they argue.

First, the United States will seek to bar China from turning toward its military forces to conquer territory and expand its influence in Asia. Second, Washington will build an alliance structure along the lines of NATO, which proved highly effective to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Third, the United States will look to dominate world oceans, making it difficult for China to project power in distant regions of strategic significance, such as the Persian Gulf and the Western hemisphere.

As explained by Mearsheimer, today, all three strategies are at play. There is no reason the United States cannot have substantial economic intercourse with China at the same time as it implements a containment strategy. Historically, this would be much like Britain, France, and Russia trading extensively with Wilhelmine Germany two decades before World War I while creating the Triple Entente for the very purpose of containing Germany.

China is becoming militarily stronger today. A month ago, the United States imposed sanctions on Beijing for its purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system. The S-400 is a cutting-edge security tool that will protect against any missile attack by enemies. It is manufactured and designed by Russia. This month, another S-400 deal was sealed in New Delhi during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India; for now, it appears that the same U.S. sanctions will not apply to India and may perhaps be fully waived.

Such sanctions are required under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which codifies sanctions against Russian arms manufacturers in national security interests. However, the United States’ 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) gives the U.S. president the power to waive these sanctions. A “free pass” given by the United States to Beijing’s fearful neighbors may describe Washington’s strategy of lingering in the background, letting surrounding Asian nations bear the brunt of containing Beijing.

This was observed a few weeks ago by the Japanese scholar Atsuko Kanehara, who visited Colombo University in Sri Lanka and spoke of the importance of the Shinzo Abe government’s strategy of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). FOIP is a construct by the Japanese to assist their ally, the United States, to maintain order in the two oceans surrounding Asia, the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

China’s aggression, in the meantime, was on display when a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur as it conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. An aggressive maneuver by a Chinese destroyer coerced the U.S. ship to quickly move to avoid a collision. As U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stated at his speech on China at the Hudson Institute in early October, “Despite such reckless harassment… we will not be intimidated; we will not stand down.” Pence further explained:

China now spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined, and Beijing has prioritized capabilities to erode America’s military advantages – on land, at sea, in the air, and in space. China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.

Managing Tensions Between Established and Rising Powers

The established power in Asia, the United States, will most likely engage in two strategies to counter China’s aggressiveness. First, it will use its economic power to slow down the Chinese economy. This has already started through the implementation of U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s trade wars with China. The second will be to use a rollback strategy to peaceful encourage regime changes in Chinese-allied nations. Mearsheimer highlights this maneuver in his book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. He compares regime changes and the operations carried out by the United States during the Cold War against nations within the Soviet sphere of influence.

The same strategy could be adopted today against nations with governments that are willing to sit within the Chinese sphere of influence. This was seen in Sri Lanka’s previous regime change, with the ouster of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pro-Chinese regime. Some opine that the Rajapaksa regime was toppled by India, which acted as an agent for the United States to install a pro-Western government.

For the United States, slowing down the Chinese economy is certainly more attractive than a direct confrontation or war. Slowing down China will also hurt U.S. interests as many nations might be eager to fill the void created by the United States and willing to trade with China. While United States takes on a broadly isolationist position, China works with a globalist approach. Trump was clear at the United Nations General Assembly this year that the United States has chosen patriotism and not globalism; this approach assumes an inward-looking position.

Meanwhile, Pence, in his speech, explained China’s “debt trap diplomacy,” directly referencing the island nation of Sri Lanka, which is situated in an Indian Ocean geopolitical hotspot and is a participant in China’s Maritime Silk Road. Pence used Sri Lanka as an example of a country “which took on massive debt to let Chinese state companies build a port with questionable commercial value.” He continued:  “Two years ago, that country could no longer afford its payments – so Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands. It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.” Pence is not alone in this view, as is widely shown in references to Sri Lanka in this context in the media and academia.

China is offering hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to governments where the terms of these loans are opaque and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing and not to the borrower. Despite being accepted as predatory loans, all of these nations continue to borrow from China as there is no good alternative. This is the case for Sri Lanka, even as its economy has weakened to a historical ebb with the highest-ever recorded depreciation of the Sri Lankan currency. With this, the U.S. projection of taking Chinese loans by other Asian, African, and Latin American nations — cautioning they are predatory debt traps — will not work either. Many South Asian nations are going through similar Chinese debt issues due to heavy borrowing, Pakistan being another such example. It is often argued that nations in Asia should not follow Sri Lanka’s fate of the debt equity swap model used to lease out strategic port Hambantota in the south of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has of late become the host of many Indian Ocean conferences to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific agenda, with particular attention given to the importance of a rules-based order in the region. It is worth considering the inner dynamics of such agendas, which are sponsored to instill strategic influence to the island nation’s foreign and security policy. It is worth to keep in mind too that the internal characteristics of states do not determine their behavior, but rather the anarchic structure of the international system — and how nations interplay in the present geopolitical tapestry.

Scholars at a recent Indian Ocean Conference held in Colombo spoke of the importance of peace. This included the Indian deputy national security adviser, who said that “based on the principles that India has highlighted most recently in the Shangri-La dialogue, you will see in the years ahead that India will be more engaged as a maritime nation with the Indian ocean community in a manner that enhance collective prosperity, peace, and security, and in this endeavor we regard Sri Lanka as a specially valued an important friend and partner.” In this light, the recent S-400 weapons system purchased by India from Russia violates the demilitarization agenda pledged by regional nations.

Finally, in an unexpected move to the South Asian political landscape, Sri Lanka’s internal political coalition was reset by President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday, October 26. The former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was appointed directly by Sirisena to take the seat of the prime minister. Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are political figures groomed by the late former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake’s political party. If both leaders choose to continue her center-left political positions and visionary foreign policy, including an Indian Ocean Zone for peace, Sri Lanka may be a leader in charting turbulent waters to leading discussions toward stable security measures and diplomatic cordiality in the Indian Ocean region.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. The views expressed here are his own.