US in multi-pronged bid to firm ties with South Asia


Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera with Executive Vice President of OPIC David Bohigian

Besides underscoring the economic dimension in current US policy towards Asia in general and South Asia in particular, a striking element in a US embassy press release which was published prominently in this newspaper’s Financial Review on October 6, was the US reference to Sri Lanka as an ‘ally’ in Asia. Referring to a visit to this country recently by the US’ Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) Executive Vice President David Bohigian the release said, among other things,’We look forward to partnering with Sri Lanka and other regional allies to identify opportunities for investment in ports and other infrastructure, which will fuel sustainable economic growth, create jobs, and leave countries better off.’

While the Sri Lankan authorities are unlikely to take exception to this description of Sri Lanka by the US, one wonders what this country’s most vociferous critics on Sri Lanka’s notably sensitive foreign policy issues, including those relating to war-time accountability questions, have to say to this categorization of Sri Lanka. After all, isn’t Sri Lanka an ‘independent’ state which is expected to jealously guard it ‘sovereignty’? Isn’t she expected to be taking on the West on accountability issues? Could even the most powerful of states take it for granted that Sri Lanka is one of its ‘allies’? This is the Question.

It goes without saying that Sri Lanka should, to the extent possible, be a friend of all countries, big or small. That is, it should try to be Non-aligned in the essential sense of the term. Sri Lanka has no choice but to adhere to this policy line simply because she has no alternative foreign policy course. This country is too vulnerable, in economic terms in particular, to take on the Goliaths of the world. But given her general foreign policy stance, she cannot permit any power to be smugly complacent that she is a compliant ‘ally’ either.

However, from the government’s viewpoint, being seen as an ‘ally’ by the West should pose no issues. After all, such a status will come in handy when in March next year the government has to provide an account to the UNHRC on how far the country has progressed in achieving internal reconciliation, for example. Being pragmatic at this juncture and ignoring the ‘ally’ label will stand Sri Lanka in good stead when it come to question time at the UNHRC.

Besides the above posers, the US embassy statement has the merit of shedding much needed light on the US’ South Asian policy ‘trajectory’. While the US is doubly keen on stepping-up economic links with Sri Lanka and other ‘allies’ in Asia, it is particularly interested in investing in this country’s infrastructure development, including ports. That is, the US would like to match-up to China and other major regional powers that are actively involved in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development sphere.

The above quote from the US embassy release gives the rationale for this degree of stepped-up US economic intervention in this region. That is, the ultimate aim is the material uplift of countries such as ours which would manifest in sustainable economic growth, more jobs and general affluence. The release adds – ‘Investments backed by the US government provide a financially-sound alternative to state-led solutions that lead nations like Sri Lanka into debt traps.’

Thus, has the US rendered more sophisticated its approach to intervening in the situations of those countries of the South which are seen by it as ‘allies’. This state of affairs is a far cry, of course, from direct military involvement. Military and defence cooperation would continue with these states of the South, but economic means are used by the US for the same purpose but with a greater degree of effectiveness because such methods are less controversial and more obviously beneficial to the South. In fact, at the time of writing US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells is touring Sri Lanka and the Maldives with security cooperation very much apparently in mind but communiques issued in connection with this visit make it plain that a materially prosperous region is the ultimate US aim.

Accordingly, the US is in the process of deploying a multi-pronged policy approach to South Asia with considerable emphasis on economic cooperation and integration with the states concerned. On the face of it, this economic dimension in the US’ approach to South Asia and the adjacent regions is immensely cost-effective because it obviates the need for more direct and humanly-costly forms of intervention and control, such as, direct military involvement and the beefing-up of defence cooperation. The latter means have been traditionally used by the big powers with regard to those states which are in the throes of internal wars and whose conditions have grave implications for the security and strategic interests of the major powers concerned.

Not surprisingly, the economic well being of the US’ ‘allies’ in the South is seen as relating very closely and promotive of US national security. For example, the US press release initially referred to states- ‘As part of his National Security Strategy., President Trump highlighted the need for a modernized approach by the US government to development finance to help grow aspiring partners..’

However, this emphasis on economic instruments of influence and control is by no means a US policy innovation. The biggest powers see it to be in their interests to intervene in economic terms in the states and regions that are closest to their interests. Such approaches render military means of intervention superfluous and even obsolete.

Generally, economics are seen by the major states today as of greater effectiveness than military power and political clout in the wielding of influence. In a world without stable and commanding political ideologies it’s economic prosperity of the South which is seen to be of predominant importance. This perspective leads to foreign policies that have as their central core economic pragmatism. In the days ahead, economics will increasingly drive politics the world over.

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