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Uncle Sam and the Mandarin dragon in Colombo

  • Published at 12:04 am November 20th, 2019
Sri lanka-Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Photo: AFP

What does Gotabaya mean for Sri Lanka? 

This year is something different for Colombo -- the polity has set new and different tweaks to Sri Lankan election results, and chose Gotabaya Rajapaksa to represent the island nation to deal with Uncle Sam and the breathing dragon. 

And Gotabaya’s brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s accession to the throne as prime minister will make the island nation more visible in the global system than ever.

A friend in Colombo has called this the Indo-Pacific election, while a professor wants to call it a dragon war. But for the global community, it is about the two competing powers -- the US and China -- amid the political meltdown and fatal form of terrorism. 

Of course, along with domestic priorities determining the electoral choice, the sophisticated Sri Lankan voters felt the need to choose their global alliance carefully, too. While we can’t precisely say which kind of foreign policy swayed Gotabaya’s rise, we can say whether or not candidates wanted to bring changes in the island’s global image. Sajith Premadasa’s lukewarm foreign policy and franking strategic credits to India and China -- which a significant number of electorates viewed not so positively -- took a toll.

Subramaniam Swamy, a Harvard-trained Indian politician and an anti-LTTE confidant of Sri Lanka, tweeted in favour of Gotabaya way ahead of the result of the “horse race.” But for Delhi, the strategic game is way more complicated this time. 

The harder the Rajapaksa team will go against the minorities -- ordinary Muslims, often considered synonymous to self-radicalized Islamists by some, along with the Tamils and their diaspora -- the more it will be a security headache for the region. 

After all, the election happened against a backdrop of catastrophic violence and myriad political debacles that the island had faced since the end of the civil war a decade ago. 

Amid that, what many Sri Lankans looked for is a forceful and firebrand political figure. Gotabaya fits the bill. He has a quasi-authoritarian party back, a nationalist agenda, and a bold approach to security. 

In fact, Gotabaya has sworn in from Ruwanweli Maha Stupa in Anuradhapura, sacred Buddhist shrine for the Sinhalese, precisely from where he launched his campaign -- a symbolic tribute to a new form of Buddhist nationalism on the rise. 

Ironically though, his and his brother’s political past or the electoral violence haven’t put a big dent in his credentials with many Sinhalese Sri Lankans, but it helped for all practical purposes. The brothers may walk away from the Geneva process, but the challenge will then lie with the Western world standing on the foothold of the moral ground of human rights in engaging with the new Colombo politics. 

Perhaps the return of the armed forces as the shadow cast and the officers with anti-LTTE heroism is likely to remain as trusted aides for the Rajapaksa regime. Hence, human rights and sectarian harmony are hanging in the balance -- something that would be a bargaining tool for many.

Will that mean anything for the real world politics jockeyed by the US and China, and now Japan? Not really. Uncle Sam is yet to confirm Gotabaya’s identity as not American. The latest federal registry released by the US government doesn’t include Gotabaya’s name under those who renounced US citizenship by September 30, 2019. Legally speaking, this will take time to resolve, until then Gotabaya will be facing twisting of his arms. 

The proposed Visiting Forces Agreement, or as the Americans call it “Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA),” between Colombo and Washington DC, will be high on the agenda. 

The Sirisena government renewed the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) in 2017, which was first signed by the Rajapaksa government in 2007.

It was, in fact, Gotabaya who signed ACSA in 2007. While the 2007 ACSA granted rights the US military vessels to anchor in the Sri Lankan ports on a one-off basis, the 2017 ACSA converted the deal into an open-ended one.

Not coincidentally though, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ship Zhu Kezhen anchored at the Colombo Port on a timely official visit two days before the elections. The Chinese investment, which flooded the Sri Lankan economy, mainly in infrastructure and real estate projects, boomed FDI and the tourism industry.

Colombo’s new extension -- funded by the Chinese under its new silk road cities series and designed to be a smaller Singapore, possibly with an autonomous administrative system -- will remain as the showcase of Chinese centrality for the years to come.

Hence, the clamour of the Chinese debt-trap that looms out of political decisions rather than the Chinese dictating the decisions (contrary to the terms and conditions), will continue to have a little clutch in the public domain.

It is always a given that the Sri Lankan premiers, like any other South Asian heavyweights, would resent being reminded of their acquiescent relationships with India, US, and China.

This time Gotabaya Rajapaksa may seek symmetry of weight in his special relationship with China and the US. That will shape his relationship with India too. It’s all about getting into good terms with superpowers this time.

The iInability to fathom that will be a weakness among the regional neighbours.

Many of the regional neighbours, perhaps, try to manage their frustration by banking on ethnic crucifixion in the name of security which Gotabaya has a practical idea about.

Hence, Gotabaya’s tilt toward the US or China will not necessarily always upset either of these countries, at least for now. Gotabaya’s experiment to “ensure ownership of all strategic assets” and a proposed non-aligned policy in “foreign dealings based on equal terms,” “reciprocal commercial ties and trade relationships” and reforming the “damaging provisions” in bilateral agreements will be something to learn over the next few months.

The future of the new generation FTA with India, known as the Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA), will keep tweaking the electoral pledges, and delivering the bilateral FTA to China will remain a costly priority for the Mandarins.

Strategic exercises in the Indian Ocean, the US, China, Japan, and India as the key participants, are expected to increase in partnership with Colombo.

The island is a crucial player, long been underrated, in securing the major shipping lines that carry much of the global container traffic and Chinese energy trade.

The Colombo, Hambantota, and Trincomalee port triad and the resurfacing of Sri Lanka as a financial hub will once again become a flagship agenda for Gotabaya in renegotiating with the US and China.

No doubt, with astronomical victory for Gotabaya the electoral picture of the old duopoly is over for now, and the pluralistic politics will be cordoned off for a while. The horse race has ended, but the horse-trading will continue.

Some of the junior ministers and MPs from UPL parliament may switch sides, and constitutional amendments won’t be a surprise. The horse-trading will become a win-win situation for all inevitably.

The question, then, becomes: Who will pay for the horses?

 But this surely attests the fact that the public narrative of the act of balancing between India and China will shift toward balancing the power in the Indo-Pacific between the US and China. Both Gotabaya and UPL will have their mutual interests in this shift. Hence, for now, there, as in the Colombo political circle, a pro-India pluralistic political party can be seen as the cornered one, and the nationalists, on the other hand, have challenged the old balancing act.

Here, to a great extent, Gotabaya, and to a lesser extent Ranil, will make Sri Lanka the pivot to roll the dice in the Indo-Pacific. 

Shahab Enam Khan is Professor of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh.