Poll results – 53 polled, 37 prefer aligning with India/US, 16 prefer aligning with China
The perfect positioning of Sri Lanka in the midst of the Indian Ocean has always brought greater benefits to the island in the past. Trade between East Asia and Europe/Euro Asia had made Sri Lanka a hub for trade interlinkages.
Religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism which originated in India have travelled to Sri Lanka due to its ideal location and political connections. Colonialism flourished in Sri Lanka due to its strategic positioning, making Sri Lanka a vital hub for East Indies Dutch and British companies.
In the recent past, Sri Lanka was known to be Asia’s Switzerland for both well-performing banks and for the country’s neutrality in global politics. Sri Lanka hosted the 1976 global conference of the movement of the non-aligned countries.
Sri Lanka has been an advocate on being neutral during much of the 20th century. In the FTA between India and Sri Lanka, a clause has been included mentioning that Sri Lanka will not provide its land as a base for foreign forces.
China to the rescue
Since the end of the ethnic war in 2009, development was an urgent task at hand. Due to the conspicuous diplomatic conflicts with the West on human rights and the delays/bureaucracy in receiving funds from funding agencies, Sri Lanka looked to the East for help.
This urgent cry was answered swiftly by China by providing necessary loans, manpower and expertise for various construction projects. In 2013, China proposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Indonesia presenting a master plan to link China with Europe through both sea and land. BRI was a regional plan which has promised to benefit many partnering countries while the ulterior benefits will be reaped by China.
Gradually since, the influence of China to become a global superpower has ever so increased. Being the global manufacturing hub, China’s master plan included Sri Lanka along with many other vicinity countries. Offers of benefits flowed into the island where this $ 1 trillion regional project (BRI) was promised to bring greater prosperity by 2050. As loans came in, the repayment interest rate increased. Since Sri Lanka lacked in identifying what projects will have higher return of investment, many infrastructure projects became irrelevant and a burden to the economy.
It is at this point where India which is a poverty stricken but a regional power noticed the growing influence of China. With time, India became insecure of China’s BRI where India lacked a long-term global plan and regional influence. A vastly nationalistic government of India made plans to invest in Sri Lanka to counter China’s influence but lacked in sustaining these investments.
The common understanding between India and US to counter China’s influence came into play at this juncture. Since China was able to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic at an earlier stage though it originated from China, China have had significant leverage in increasing its influence where both India and US are suffering heavily, and economic development has slowed.
The tension against China has brewed significantly in the recent past. From India’s border skirmishes in Galwan Valley to banning and boycotting of Chinese apps and products has created uncertainty in the regional stability. Meanwhile, the US has challenged Chinese maritime influence in the South China Sea where China is accused of creating artificial islands and military/industrial outposts. Tension by neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Philippines have been high where since recently has simmered.
The focus now has moved to the Indian Ocean. As India has come under heavy pressure due to the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal, India finds itself ‘surrounded’ with possible Chinese aligned nations. It is at this point where US and India have started to see ‘eye to eye’ with a greater urgency.
As the global pandemic and its outcomes take effect, Sri Lanka is bound to find it difficult to maintain a neutral position. As the loan repayments increase where by 2022, Sri Lanka must make loan repayments worth $ 21 billion and having 14% debt to China, 12% debt to Japan, 12% debt to ADB and 11% debt to World Bank, Sri Lanka will need to align with a global superpower. If Sri Lanka is to remain neutral, the island nation will require substantial commitments and a long-term plan in increasing its development in a sustainable and with a strategic vision.
In light of these new developments, Sri Lanka saw two significant personnel visiting Sri Lanka in October. Yang Jiechi who is high-ranking Chinese diplomat and Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party and Mike Pompeo who is the US Secretary of State met the President of Sri Lanka. These back-to-back visits along with the heated Twitter battles between China and US shows that there is increased pressure on Sri Lanka to align with a superpower.
A recent poll was conducted with 53 Sri Lankan individuals (all youth) of different backgrounds asking for their opinion who Sri Lanka should align with. The option of ‘remain neutral’ was omitted to understand the individual’s slightest inclinations. It must be noted that many respondents did not poll as they were strongly inclined to remain neutral.
From the 53 individuals polled, 37 said they prefer Sri Lanka aligning with US/India while 16 preferred Sri Lanka aligning with China and its BRI initiative.
Various reasons to align with US/India are as follows:
- Lack of operations and return of investment in the projects funded and carried out by China
- Chinese ‘debt trap’ becoming a significant point of issue
- India being closer to Sri Lanka
- United States having increased economic and military influence
- Cultural similarities and connections between India and Sri Lanka
- Common language of English used for communication
- Economic influence where US is Sri Lanka’s largest export destination
- Lack of democracy, personal freedom and censorship in China
- Threats on religious freedom in China
- Increase in Chinese influence reflected in the administration of Sri Lanka
Various reasons to align with China are as follows:
- Mistrust towards the intention of US partnerships with Sri Lanka such as MCC, SOFA
- India’s lack of long-term regional plan to benefit Sri Lanka
- Fear of becoming instable due to US or Indian military influence
- Historical relations with China (20th century partnerships to silk road connections)
- India’s lack of development within its borders
- Unsustainable approach of India’s influence in Sri Lanka (ownership and questionable investment)
- Inconsistence of the US President and administration
- Past actions by India during the Eelam war
- Sri Lankan administration preference towards Chinese funded projects in Sri Lanka.
A significant time
October 2020 has been significant to Sri Lanka. The 20th Amendment was passed through the two-thirds majority of power vested by the ruling party while the spread of COVID-19 virus in Sri Lanka has affected over 10,000 individuals. This sudden peak in the virus spread has made Sri Lanka a ‘not so much safe’ destination compared to the previous significant record of effectively controlling the spread of the virus. This sudden spread during an important period of time makes one ponder if the virus was placed in Sri Lanka intentionally.
Meanwhile regional geopolitics reached a peak where Sri Lanka has effectively become the playground for global geopolitical drama by the superpowers. Sri Lankans have become greatly hesitant but knows that it is inevitable to avoid a certain alignment unless the island nation develops its long-term and sustainable development plan.
If such plan is to formulate without internal bipartisan politics and regional geopolitical influence, all Sri Lankans will have a chance to align behind a national drive towards greater prosperity. Examples such as Ethiopia where all its citizens are involved in various ways in building the Renaissance Dam which is to bring greater benefits and leverage to Ethiopia can be a case study towards such similar national efforts.
United States Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, Singapore’s service-oriented development drive starting 1959, Malaysia’s New Economic Policy on sustainable development since 1970s and Kenya’s Vision 2030 which started in 2008 are a few of the other prime examples.
The impact caused due to COVID-19 is yet to dent the Sri Lankan economy as the recent pandemic wave has started to engulf the island with increased ferocity. It seems as though the tough stage is yet to be reached in this recessionary period.
Sri Lanka has seen many internal and external challenges and it is certain that it will find a way to overcome these challenges. The question now will be to see if Sri Lanka will overcome its challenges in alignment with a global superpower or remaining as a neutral nation.
(The writer who also conducted the poll can be reached via email at [email protected])