Sri Lanka must be a friend; not ally or fellow traveller of China

Thursday, 10 June 2021 00:25 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

From President Gotabaya’s speech at the Investment Forum, one pictures the Port City bubble as West Berlin to the rest of Sri Lanka’s East Germany


“…Sri Lanka’s geographic proximity to major undersea cables that transmit millions of terabytes of data…” – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Keynote Address, Sri Lanka Investment Forum, 7 June 2021)

Whatever the reset in the Rajapaksa ranks and whoever the front-runner in the candidacy-stakes, it’s irrelevant.

Our most senior economist, Prof. Nimal Sanderatne, who specialises in agrarian economics, has warned that “The economic consequences of banning chemical fertilisers immediately are horrendous…[It] would reduce production of both food crops and export crops, impoverish farmers, decrease food availability, increase food prices and reduce accessibility of low incomes to adequate food, threaten food security, increase import expenditure, reduce export earnings and worsen the country’s weak external finances.” (Sunday Times) 

From President Gotabaya’s speech at the Investment Forum, one pictures the Port City bubble as West Berlin to the rest of Sri Lanka’s East Germany.

Sri Lanka’s Army Commander addressed the Investment Forum on the subject of the COVID-19 suppression campaign while making a pitch for investment. How many army commanders address international audiences on the subject of COVID-19? How many army commanders address an investment seminar? What category would such countries be classified under, by potential international investors? Doesn’t the Government care about the image it projects and the signals it sends out?

Comprehending China’s line 

President Gotabaya took a Great Leap Forward in the long-standing relationship with China in the same way he made a Great Leap Forward to the ‘shock therapy’ switch to organic agriculture—without independent, in-depth, expert deliberation. 

The quantum leap in relations with China finds Sri Lanka in the wrong place at the wrong time: not only the competition between the US-led Quad and China, but also the wrong phase in China’s trajectory. 

Furthermore, it is the wrong time in Sri Lanka’s policy-making process because we no longer have expertise on China. There are those with a security background who have studied this or that aspect of China’s policy and history (e.g., Admiral Zheng He) and those in service and outside, who have considerable empirical knowledge of doing business with China, almost beyond the point of a potential conflict of interest. What we once had—e.g., Ambassadors Tissa Wijeratne, Jayantha Dhanapala and Charlie Mahendran—but no longer have is objective knowledge of the history of China’s foreign policy and the Communist Party of China.

My own understanding of the subject was enriched mainly by two sources. Firstly, my father’s friend N. Sanmugathasan, Leader of the Ceylon Communist Party, who had discussions with Chairman Mao more than once and had been with him at daybreak in Tiananmen Square during the Cultural Revolution. Secondly, Prof. Mark Selden, outstanding Sinologist and my supervisor during my interrupted years as a doctoral student and Fulbright scholarship winner. 

My study of post-revolutionary China’s changing external relations driven by the changing perceptions and international line of the Communist Party of China (CPC), resulted in a substantive chapter on the subject in my book ‘The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counter-Narrative from the South’ (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014, pp. 86-123).

I was also fortunate to be acquainted with the renowned historian, Emeritus Professor Wang Gungwu during my stint at the National University of Singapore. Years later, serving in Moscow, I had extended conversations with top China hands at leading institutes of Russia’s Academy of Sciences.  

China’s foreign policy is not reducible to, but is driven in the final analysis, by the international line of the ruling Communist Party of China. That in turn depends on the balance of forces within the party and the perception of external risk and opportunity on the part of the dominant element of the party. Trends in China’s external affairs are sourced in the complex ensemble of party-army-civil interrelationships. 

Changing context

Recently, Malaysia scrambled its jets claiming an incursion by the Chinese Air Force into its airspace. A few weeks earlier there was a spat between the Philippines and China over a similar dispute at sea. There is an ugly, raucous dispute with Australia, triggered by Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. True, Australia is a member of the Quad, but why the friction with independent-minded Malaysia and the Philippines? 

Why would China risk and almost provoke a revival of a SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organization) equivalent? Though India is a member of the Quad, it is also a member of BRICS, the SCO and the RIC (more of which later), so why did China not resort to high-level pre-emptive diplomacy before the lethal clash broke out with Indian troops last year?  

While Russia and China are closer together than ever before, largely as a result of the USA’s apparent abandonment of or ambiguity about Kissinger’s masterly comprehension that you do not, must not and cannot take on both the Russians and the Chinese at the same time, it is also true that China’s new unilateral assertiveness has derailed Moscow’s grand strategy based on the notion of Eurasia and extending to the idea of a greater Eurasia. 

At its core was the doctrine of the most influential of Russian thinkers on international relations, the late Premier, Foreign Minister and Academician Evgeni Primakov (whom I was fortunate enough to have a long conversation with when my father hosted him during his visit to Colombo during the 5th Nonaligned Summit). Primakov had revived one of Lenin’s last ideas and refined it into the formula ‘R-I-C’: Russia-India-China. Though Russia has played a sterling diplomatic role in help prevent a repeat of hostilities between China and India, the grand-strategic value of that concept lies fractured, and therefore so too does the Eurasia strategy, not to mention the Greater Eurasia aspiration. 

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tried his best to talk Asia out of going along with the Indo-Pacific concept. The perception of China as a more immediate threat than the USA, fuelled by China’s friction with this or that East Asian nation has defeated his effort. India’s doctrine of strategic autonomy continues, but with much closer integration with the USA following the 2020 clash with China.

The Russia-China equation was to have two aspects. They would have each other’s backs in a geopolitical sense, providing mutual rear areas. The second dimension was a division of labour: China would provide the economics; Russia the hard power. But now, China asserts itself conspicuously and unilaterally in the hard power realm too.  

China’s timeline has also changed. Cuban Deputy Foreign Ministers told me in Colombo and Paris, that Chinese leaders had informed Fidel that they did not wish to confront and provoke the West into counteraction until China had won the race for global economic dominance 50 years hence (2050). 

China’s recent conduct has caused a rollback of some of its impressive achievements such as the economic agreement with the EU, which the EU had proceeded with despite the Trump administration’s push against Huawei and 5G. Now, the European parliament has put the economic agreement with China on hold because of the latter’s overkill in response to narrow-gauge criticism. 

Rentier regime 

China’s conduct would come as no surprise to students of China’s foreign policy and the international line of the Communist Party of China. Far greater swerves to right and left, more convulsive reversals and accelerations, have taken place in its history. Why should Sri Lanka entangle itself so inextricably with an internationally unpredictable China during a looming global contest, the outcome of which is far from clear and predetermined, but is unwinnable by Beijing?   

China’s unquestionable economic power and capacity makes it unthinkable for Sri Lanka to delink from it and become a fellow-traveller of the USA-led West. Even such fellow-travellers as the last UNP Government (the last we shall see) snapped back into line economically with China. However, given the power and prospects of the West and Sri Lanka’s own existential destiny as a democracy, it is equally or even more ridiculous for us to be doing what we are under the Rajapaksa regime: being fellow-travellers of China and its ruling Communist Party. 

Sri Lanka must balance between the USA and China, and regionally between India and China. While it must be as even-handed as possible, there is also an existential choice to be made. While we must reject strategic alignment with and economic dependency on contending Great Power ‘poles’, the global struggle is also between democracy and autocracy, and Sri Lanka belongs existentially to the family of democracy. Therefore, we must “lean to one side” (Mao)—the side of democratic systems, values and norms; the ideas of freedom, liberty, equality, independence.  

This Government believes it has placed a winning bet which can more than offset its growing domestic crisis and unpopularity. It assumes the West will lose and China will win. President GR should read the later interviews of Lee Kuan Yew who contributed so much to the opening up of the Chinese economy and cheered on China’s growing role in the world. He was utterly certain that while China could ensure safety and security for itself from the USA in the proximate half of the Pacific, pushing the US out of range, it could never successfully compete with America for global leadership due to the character of the respective societies and cultures: open vs. closed. 

Sri Lanka has become a fellow-traveller of China because foreign policy is being viewed not through the prism of Sri Lanka’s objective national interest but through the lens of the parochial project for political power and entrenchment of the ruling Rajapaksa clan. The unconscionable trade-off is this small island’s sovereignty and economic space in return for patronage and protection. Pre-revolutionary China’s semi-colonial history of humiliation had ‘treaty ports’ with foreign powers. Now, Sri Lanka has them. A ‘rentier’ (rent-seeking) Rajapaksa regime presides over a ‘rentier-state’ and a ‘rentier-capitalism’.

In the 20th century, Ceylon had to make a choice between on the one hand, a rising, despotic Asian power which offered a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and on the other, the Western democracies, including colonial oppressors, unusually allied with the USSR. D.S. Senanayake, later known as the Father of The Nation, as well as the Communist Party led by Dr. S.A. Wickremesinghe and Pieter Keuneman, chose the global alliance which included the Western democratic imperialists. 

If the choice had been posed today I have no doubt that President Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa clan would have collaborated with that rising despotic Asian power and chanted the praises of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. 

Fewer friends

In the 1970s when China supported a string of reactionary regimes and causes, Fidel Castro, leading the Nonaligned Movement at the time, excoriated those “who destroy with their feet what they have built with their hands”. 

Today, China enjoys less friendship, goodwill, trust, space and soft-power globally than it did two years ago when it celebrated the 70th anniversary of its revolution. 

Sulmaan Wasif Khan, author of the volume ‘Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping,’ is the Denison chair of international history and diplomacy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. From his recent essay in Foreign Policy, entitled ‘Wolf Warriors Killed China’s Grand Strategy—and We Should All Be Sorry,’ I picked five key takeaways:  

(1) “Sometime in 2020, China came unmoored from its grand strategy…The predominant feature of Chinese conduct today is not grand strategy but a belligerent, defensive nationalism that lashes out without heed of consequences. Just why that breakdown has occurred is uncertain, but it is clear that the change has put both China and the world in jeopardy. China risks undoing all it has gained—at considerable cost—since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power.”  

(2) “…A decades-long grand strategy doesn’t die suddenly. Its death is a process, with warning signs along the way. In China’s case, the Xi era has seen the accumulation of somewhat counterproductive policies that catalysed a breakdown.” 

(3) “…What changed in 2020 was that nationalism for its own sake became the predominant motif of Chinese conduct…” 

(4) “…If anything, China has squandered all the advantages it could have won in 2020 as the United States went through utter chaos. Another suggestion is that China now feels it can get away with belligerence because it is stronger. This might be part of the explanation, but it does raise the question of why it would want to fritter away strength on folly.”

(5) “The most persuasive explanation is that China has poisoned itself through its own rhetoric. In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, nationalism was seen as a way to get citizens on the same page as the party. It was not really meant to inform practical foreign policy. But as the United States discovered in the Donald Trump years, one cannot stoke nationalistic fires without their eventually blazing beyond control.” 

(See Wolf Warriors Killed China’s Grand Strategy—and We Should All Be Sorry –

In a major recent presentation, Kurt Campbell, President Biden’s topmost China hand and member of the National Security Council, is reported as mentioning the Indo-China clash of May 2020 first on his evidence-list of China’s newly aggressive assertion or threat of hard power. 


Chokepoint and clash of projects 

Given the spike in nationalism in China, it is obvious why President Gotabaya and his power-base thought they had found a blood-brother. The Chinese Communist Party will inevitably course-correct someday, as it always has—rectifying a ‘nationalist deviation’ or ‘adventurist deviation’—but that will be too late to stop the damage inflicted on Sri Lanka by the Rajapaksa rush into the minefield of great power rivalry. 

Though it will probably have to retrench in the face of reality, China is far too big to fail or cease to be a serious competitor of and counterweight to the USA. That said, President Gotabaya took the relationship with China to the next level i.e., that of dependent integration, at the wrong hinge-point in China’s external relations: 2020. When he should have prudently recalibrated, President GR did the opposite with President Xi, as did BR and NR with the Chinese Communist Party. 

China is powerful enough for its expanding footprint in Sri Lanka to trigger a threat-perception in the West, while never being proximate and powerful enough to shield Sri Lanka from pushback and counter-pressure. 

On the one hand, we have China’s power-projection into the Indian Ocean on South Asia’s south, and its outcome, the Rajapaksa clan-led political, economic and strategic model of subaltern symbiosis—a Chinese geostrategic hub and quasi-protectorate. On the other hand, we have the grand-strategic interests of the US-led Quad in the Indo-Pacific and the imperative of democratic leadership of the world order. 

Between these two projects it is a zero-sum game or ‘antagonistic contradiction’ (Mao). Can there be a “free, open Indo-Pacific”, with China building, owning and controlling an artificial island in the Indian Ocean on a potential choke-point in “geographic proximity to major undersea cables that transmit millions of terabytes of data”? 


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