Globalisation has swept the world. It has brought about breathtaking progress in many areas for many people. It is nevertheless alleged to be responsible for marginalising many vulnerable populations. Economists are already talking about “de-globalisation”. In seeking greater good and wellbeing for their peoples, some nations and even continents had integrated into Unions blurring the hitherto sacrosanct attributes of sovereignty and nationhood.
Some of these “advanced” nations now seem to experience countervailing waves of nationalism and even exclusion as was evident in the Brexit affair and in some elections in the Americas and Europe. There are also untenable and unsustainable contradictions like the quest for opening borders for goods and services while closing them for people, especially for those in distress. Commentators question whether the constructive idea of liberal democracy is ending and disruptive populism is rising across nations and continents. Strategic power centres, financial prowess and production capacities have shifted from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific.
In this complex situation of change and volatility, one constant that stood out has been the rising power of China. The former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer commenting on the impending Trump era laments the end of what is known as the “(trans-Atlantic) West” led by the United States. He bemoans the probability that China will “fill” this gap (“Goodbye to the West”, Joschka Fischer, Project Syndicate).
The cause and effect of this change and volatility is of course the subject of wide-ranging debates that are ongoing. What is beyond debate is the ascendency of what the United States Admiral Harry Harris called the “Indo-Asia-Pacific Region” in general and “Sino-Indian” power in particular.
The region the Admiral referred to has some remarkable attributes. Its key players India and China, especially China, will have the lion's share of world GDP totalling trillions of dollars; possibly the largest middle-class population; the largest purchasing power and production capacity; and possibly the largest capital export potential in the world. Henry Kissinger's words several decades ago—and long before Joschka Fischer's pronouncement—were therefore not surprising. “Given a decent system, China with 800 million workers will provide world leadership,” Kissinger said.
With Deng Xiaoping-inspired reforms, what China has progressively and meticulously built up turns out to be quite a “decent system” indeed. The country now has nearly double the population that Kissinger was talking about. No single country in recent times has alleviated poverty of so many in so short a time as China has. Given their formidable capacity to produce and consume as well as to create and export, China and India hold “decisive stakes” in sustainable global growth and development. That of course requires secure and well-serviced East-West trade routes including Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs).
Has Sri Lanka, located as it is at a strategic pivot on this trade route, prudently and optimally exploited the national interest benefits that it can derive from this enormous potential “to produce and consume,” especially by these two giant economies? Some analysts have also speculated on “Sri Lanka's quest for strategic prominence in the Indian Ocean” and the possibility of “carving out a role for itself (Sri Lanka) among the South Asian Littorals.”
The challenge for Sri Lankan diplomacy has been and will be to show that it is after commercial/economic benefits and not strategic manipulation and that Sri Lanka will aggressively exploit the full investment and trading potential of the Belt/Road initiatives of China for that purpose. In doing so, rather than having demarcated “zones for investing powers,” the whole of Sri Lanka can become a venue supporting multinational investment and multilateral cooperation for growth and development, without ruffling geopolitical feathers of anyone—regional or extra-regional.
Thus the country will not be the ground zero for a “zero-sum” strategic power play that could give rise to the doomsday scenario of the kind conceived in the latest “geo-political flourish” from the Indian analytics industry viz. the possibility of Sri Lanka becoming a (hostile) “aircraft carrier parked just fourteen miles off the coast of India” (Choices: Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy (Geopolitics in the 21st Century), Shivshankar Menon).
The Belt/Road potential can of course be projected and used as an opportunity for everyone and a threat to no one. The initiative straddles a large economic space and is home to some of the largest economic powerhouses in the world; it has room for all the key players provided the playing field is levelled through diplomacy based on the force of rule rather than the rule of force. Continuous sabre-rattling over the South China Sea is not an auspicious beginning though.
Despite the fact that China and Sri Lanka have deepened and widened their relations building on “the everlasting friendship” to a platform of “strategic cooperation,” critics say that the former government in Sri Lanka had unwisely placed most, if not all, of their “eggs in the Chinese basket” entailing serious debt management issues at home and troubling strategic concerns abroad involving India and the US. The current government got its share of criticism for the “clumsy handling” of relations with China at the outset of its tenure. The new government appeared too preoccupied with making “course corrections” to Sri Lanka's relations with the United States and India that became sour during its predecessor's tenure. The government has since embarked on what seemed to be successful diplomatic negotiations to iron out differences with China, especially with regard to two key projects—the Port City and Hambantota. But residual irritants continued to linger.
Another “unconventional” facet in this interesting phase of Sino-Sri Lanka relations had been the way in which the two major parties in Sri Lanka had used or “misused” the real or contrived state of Chinese assistance and bilateral relations in what was a bruising election campaign early this year. This contrasts with a longstanding Sri Lankan tradition of working towards a bipartisan foreign policy, so that foreign relations do not get enmeshed in local politics which is an enterprise where no quarter is usually given! Since of late, this important principle seemed to have wilted against political expedience.
Perhaps in reciprocity, China on its part also resorted to rather aggressive “public diplomacy” in Sri Lanka in order to justify/explain its position on the nature of the so-called controversial projects and on the terms and conditions of the assistance provided. That too was an unprecedented step in the usually discreet Chinese diplomatic practice, especially with a country like Sri Lanka which is supposed to be an “all-weather friend”.
The Sri Lankan side seems to still be grappling with residual politics of issues thrown up by the last election campaign in the country while the Chinese side is eager to bring out real life business matters beneficial to both sides, e.g. shifting the excess industrial capacity in China to Sri Lanka, help Sri Lanka to link up with global value chains exploiting the comparative advantage of the two countries in a complementary manner through the Belt/Road process. This points towards hard-nosed business advice to the Sri Lankan government as well as to our private sector regarding clear and present opportunities which we have yet to seize fully.
Given the complex and constantly shifting dynamics of the Indo-China-Pacific ascendancy and the pivotal roles of China and India therein as well as Sri Lanka's own longstanding but complex relationship with these countries, it would indeed be quite a taxing task to address the many dimensions of the challenges, let alone find solutions to them.
HMGS Palihakkara is a former foreign secretary of Sri Lanka.
This article is an extract from a foreword to a collection of essays by academics on Sri Lanka-China relations titled “The Island of the Lion and the Land of the Dragon” published by Pathfinder Foundation and edited by HMGS Palihakkara.