How far ‘forward-looking’ is Biden for Sri Lanka

By N Sathiya Moorthy

In a tweet on the US presidential election results – or, what it is believed to be, unless the American courts rule otherwise, if approached – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has registered his early cheers for Democrat Joe Biden and his vice-presidential running-mate, Kamala Harris.

“Congratulations! President-elect @JoeBiden on your historic victory. Look forward to working closely with you to strengthen the bilateral relations between our two countries,” President Rajapaksa has said in his tweet. “The Government & the people of Sri Lanka join me in extending our warmest congratulations to President-elect @JoeBiden and Vice-President-elect @KamalaHarris on this victory. We look forward to working together towards an even more robust, mutually-rewarding partnership,” Gotabaya added in the tweet.

Welcome words, from one Head of State to another only weeks away. It is not about relative sizes and strengths, or the nations concerned, their relative economic power and military prowess at the moment. That will all be in subtle display in the case of the US – and, crude at times and with other partners – but right now, it is between the CEOs of two sovereign – and democratic nations.

The US is the world’s oldest democracy, after the post-Magna Carta colonial parent in the UK. Sri Lanka is Asia’s oldest democracy with the advent of the Donaghmore Constitution in 1931. The comparisons should stop there. Today, it is all about live issues, where the two nations seem to be standing at either end of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, of which the four-nation Quad is a part, according to some in the Sri Lankan strategic community.

That is because Sri Lanka, all along, and more so since the arrival of President Gotabaya, has been seeking to convince those that want to hear that it is a non-aligned nation and will remain so. The implication is that despite strong economic ties with China, it will not lead to any military or security cooperation of any kind whatsoever.

Possible, especially after the successful conclusion of the LTTE war as far back as 2009, but then the international community has problems accepting it at face-value. This is more so, when such commitments come, that too unilaterally, from the Rajapaksas when in government.

The US-led West has had no problem in accepting that the rival Ranil Wickremesinghe Government in the country, when they said the very same time. The bee in the bonnet of the West, of course, is Hambantota. Considering that it was the Wickremesinghe government that played the ‘debt-card’ and had the port property transferred to China’s possession on a 99-year lease, even though it was present-day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, then as President, who had invited them on ‘commercial terms’ in the first place.

To the West, the Rajapaksas can do no right. Their rivals, earlier Wickremesinghe, now possibly Sajith Premadasa, could do no harm. What the West also forgets to acknowledge is the fact that despite their non-acceptance, bi-partisan consensus in matters of geo-strategic importance in Sri Lanka as much as it is there in the US or Europe.

Where the two traditional ruling-class ideologies have differed in the country in geo-political and geo-economic matters. Even here, they acknowledge that there is a umbilical cord connection between geo-political and geo-strategic matters, which cannot be snapped at any point in time.

It is here that President Gota and President Biden will begin their travel together in terms of bilateral relations – nay, the American ideas of Indo-Pacific and Quad, where their sole aim will be to do what makes it for Sri Lanka to fit in  seamlessly – or, fitted in. The latter, they failed despite effecting ‘regime-change’ in 2015. The former, charm-game, may now be at play – or, it is already, as the recent, untimely and ill-timed visit of outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, proved.

Strategic importance

In recent years, it was the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that recorded that Sri Lanka was of ‘strategic importance’ to the US. Sen John Kerry, who was the losing Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, was a co-chair of the Senate panel. Sri Lankans involuntarily concluded that the US was coming around. No, the US did not. The Senate panel’s message was that either Sri Lanka come around – or that the US should what is needed to achieve this goal.

Then came the closing months of the war. As Secretary of State in the first Obama presidency, Hillary Clinton, wrote to then Foreign Minister, G L Peiris, to visit the US. The Government then took pride in Peiris not even writing back.

The Rajapaksas’ government, earlier and at present, too, are definite that the nation would not participate in the UNHRC process. Independent of public debates, backroom negotiations (at times, face-savers for the prime-movers of resolutions) and which way a vote may go, the international community – whether liberal or autocratic groups, therein – do not take an ‘insult’ lying down.

It’s what happened in UNHRC-2012. This may also be possibly among the reasons that the US maintains a two-track approach to the ethnic issue, still – war-crimes probe being independent of visible improvements on the ground, whoever the ruler. Hence, possibly, too, why they did not find any definitive conclusion to the UNHRC process when a ‘friendly’ Wickremesinghe government came to power.

Re-entering UNHRC?

Under President Donald Trump, who will be around in White House a little past mid-January, the US walked out of the UNHRC, where Sri Lanka is stuck on the ‘war-crimes’ front.  If someone in Colombo thought that the Sri Lanka resolution would lose sting and steam, it was not to be.

The US promptly transferred the future ownership of the resolution to the most reliable of trans-Atlantic partner in the UK. There again, bi-partisan political consensus on foreign policy, even if were not on human rights, has ensured that they have taken the resolution to the last ‘t’. There is also the domestic politics and elections, in which Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora have some stay – or, at least more than their Sinhala counterparts.

It may be too early for Biden’s US to re-join the UNHRC by the time the Sri Lanka resolution comes up for a more serious debate and decisive vote, in the March session. But during the joining period as available to them between now and 20 January, Biden’s transition team is sure to review Trump’s foreign policy decisions, if they have not done already — or, more than already.

With Trump bad-mouthing the UN and its affiliates, that is one area Biden would be taking a closer look at it. The most recent of the Trump team’s outbursts at the UN was when Secretary Pompeo criticised the whole of the General Assembly for voting in ‘authoritarian regimes’ like China, Russia and Cuba. Then there is also UNESCO, to which Trump’s America withdrew substantial annual subscription.

It was a strong message from a Republican tenant in the White House to the UN, after a Bush earlier had defied the international body that the US had helped create, to launch what became a unilateral war on Iraq – with all major western members of the UN from Europe and elsewhere chipping in, elsewhere, in Afghanistan almost around the same time.  That was also when then Secretary of State Colin Powell lied to the UN on ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) in Iraq’s possession – a bluff that was called even before he had finished his speech. Yet, they went ahead with the war.

In this background, a Democratic President, may want to make amends, or at least gestures to the international community, by using the UN as a common platform. Of course, Biden’s hands will be full for the first few months, re-setting politico-strategic equations and economic relations with many of America’s allies from after the Second World War – allies in Europe and those in East Asia, like Japan and South Korea.

All of it could mean that a Biden presidency will not have time for Sri Lanka in the first few months. But then, that is not the case with China, with which alone the US has come to see Sri Lanka, whether it is a ‘Republican’ White House or a ‘Democratic’ White House. Definitely, his successor is going to get a briefing from Secretary Pompeo, especially on his campaign-time foreign visits, where Sri Lanka fitted in along with India, Maldives from the immediate neighbourhood, and also Indonesia and Vietnam, not very far away.

The question is what will be the US approach to Sri Lanka, both on the political front (UNHRC) and economic front (plus or minus MCC). The US will include geo-strategic considerations, since Sen Kerry identified Sri Lanka and adjoining waters as a key area of interest for his nation. That has not changed, and is not going to change for a long, long time to come. It is not in the hands of Sri Lanka, but depends on America-China relations, and their own perceptions about each other, at any given point in time and/or about the future, near and afar.

The question arises if the Biden presidency will be as forward-looking in bilateral relations with Sri Lanka as President Rajapaksa has hoped for. Even if so, what is forward-looking for Sri Lanka need not be equally so for the US. The reverse is even more true. It’s as semantics, did you say?

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

 

 

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