Is Sri Lanka truly ‘Non-Aligned’
by Kusum Wijetilleke
Sino-Sri Lankan relations date back long before the much-acclaimed rubber rice pact of 1952. The Chinese Monk Faxian documented his visit to the island around the fourth century. King Alakeshvara, ruler of the Kingdom of Kotte, battled a Ming Dynasty fleet in the 1400s. His defeat and capture led to the ascension of King Parakramabahu VI, a known proponent for trade with the ancient Chinese empire. Chinese history has recorded that King Parakramabahu VI was nominated by the Yongle Emperor based on the advice of the Sinhalese present at the Ming Court and installed as King with the backing of Admiral Zheng He and his fleet.
The modern relationship gathered pace after Sri Lanka’s early recognition of the Peoples Republic of China, in 1957. Sri Lanka is also reliant on the United States, the world’s pre-eminent super power and recent comments made by the visiting Secretary of State, Mr. Mike Pompeo, reveal the very public divorce and necessitates a delicate balancing act on the part of Sri Lanka.
China’s economic success has been largely facilitated by the United States and other liberal democracies through multinational corporations operating within a free trade environment. “Chimerica”, a term introduced by Economist Moritz Schularick and Historian Niall Ferguson in 2006, is a term that describes the symbiotic economic relationship between the United States and China. This period of historic economic expansion, amid the booms and busts, is also broadly considered to be the height of the neo-liberal economic project. Chimerica allowed many long established American multinationals to continue their growth stories in the Far East, leading to a mass exodus of American manufacturing to China. In return, the world’s pre-eminent consumerist mecca swallowed up cheaper goods imported from the East. This seemed like a win-win situation; China would lift literally hundreds of millions out of poverty while the US satiated its hunger for cheap products and kept its hyper-consumerist economy trudging along. Yet by the time the 2008 financial crisis struck, China seemed the clear winner. American multinationals were creating extreme levels of wealth but with very little ‘trickle down’ to ordinary US citizens. Wages of the American middle class stagnated, and entire regions of the US, once proud cities built by the manufacturing industry, began collapsing.
Sri Lanka on the String of Pearls
In the meantime, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with its centralised structure of economic planning, had begun its next phase of development. The Belt and Road Initiative, had already taken root in Sri Lanka, well before its official launch by Chairman Xi Jinping in 2013. Starting in the 1970s, China had provided grants for infrastructure development to Sri Lanka, the most famous being the BMICH. However since the early 2000s, Chinese investments in Sri Lanka took the form of interest bearing loans and FDI. The Norocholai Power Station in 2006, the Hambantota Port Project in 2007, the Matala Airport and the Colombo Port City investment in 2010 are just some examples.
Sri Lanka was clearly of strategic importance to China and while the global economy ticked along there was little concern, the CCP had become a reliable development partner. The Chimerican project on the other hand, was running into trouble. Schularick and Ferguson note that even in the lead up to 2008, China had been building up its currency reserves and using these to buy more and more US securities. Essentially, China was saving while the US was over-spending. American over-spending was only possible due to cheap debt and cheap debt was always likely to lead to those troublesome economic “bubbles”.
In 2008, demand in the US plummeted and China had to fortify its own economy through an economic stimulus plan around the same time that the US treasury launched the American Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The Chinese Central Bank, PBOC, lifted restrictions on commercial bank lending and the State Council invested somewhere in the region of 4 trillion Yuan, equivalent to USD 600 Bn, in infrastructure and welfare services between 2008 and 2010. A decade or so later and China has had to revisit a stimulus package by way of tax cuts and improving liquidity. China’s double digit GDP growth was always unlikely to last, the inevitable slow-down was managed by the CCP until the unforeseeable external headwinds of the Trump trade war and the pandemic. It is worth noting that the CCP did not publish an economic growth target for 2019, an unprecedented policy that continued through 2020. Despite a rebound in industrial output in the second half of 2020, official unemployment figures remain at around 6% while economists argue that the actual unemployment rate might be double this. Thus China, for all its incredible growth and financial might, is not infallible and must manage its risks and rewards like any other nation. Sri Lanka should take note, an endless Chinese appetite for Sri Lankan infrastructure lending is by no means guaranteed.
Cold War 2.0: The End of an Affair
The inevitable eastward shift of manufacturing, accelerated by neo-liberal trade policies and the automation and technological revolution, altered the lives of millions of working Americans. Many in these towns and cities took note when candidate Trump oversimplified the complex case of US international trade with a view of trade tariffs not shared by many economists. President Trump was always likely to accelerate the eventual divorce or evolution of the Chimerican relationship. The US Treasury department, having taken the historic step of labeling China a currency manipulator in August 2019, changed course a mere 5 months later as part of its Phase One trade deal. The US, UK and a few other European countries have taken steps to ban technology from Chinese telco giant Huawei in their 5G roll-out. These are all facets of the emerging Cold War 2.0. During the original Cold War, two major powers engaged in proxy wars, an arms race and the space race, in a battle for technological superiority. Cold War 2.0 might seem to be all about trade imbalances and intellectual property theft, yet the technological race is critical. China and the US are vying for superiority in various tech fields including semiconductors, quantum computing, 5G, artificial intelligence and data science.
The symbiotic economic relationship is at risk. What remains to be seen is whether Chimerica complete their divorce or arrive at an amicable compromise; an evolution of the relationship. The latter seems less contentious and will moderate short-term shocks to the global economy. However, the current signs seem to suggest the former, and Sri Lanka may find itself in the midst of a rather messy divorce.
Twin Alignment and Anti-Americanism
Secretary Pompeo’s visit and comments, certainly caused a stir. Sri Lanka has always had a strong center-left/ leftist political tradition and anti-Americanism comes with the territory.
The JVP began the festivities on the front page of a daily by stating the obvious: “Sri Lanka doesn’t need Foreign Interventions” (suffice to say, we actually do, we are inviting it in some quarters). The LSSP cautioned the government not to “fall into a trap”, Prof. Tissa Vitharana warning that signing agreements like the SOFA will lead to thousands of US forces utilizing the whole of Sri Lanka as a base. He stated, rather confusingly, that “even staying neutral is tacit approval” and urged the Sri Lankan Government to “take a non-aligned stance and support China”. Note the contradictions.
As much as Sri Lanka would prefer to be “non-aligned”, it remains very much aligned with the East Asian super power through borrowings, agreements and investments whilst performing an intricate balancing act with its number one export destination: the United States. The truth is that Sri Lanka is far from non-aligned, in fact one could argue that Sri Lanka has a ‘twin alignment’ with the two major economic and military powers in the world.
The United States is our top single-nation export destination by a considerable distance, and has also provided some $2.5 Bn in aid over the past several decades through various programmes and institutions. It also funds and thus holds considerable sway in many multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the IMF. Beyond its economic cooperation, the US also assisted Sri Lanka in some key aspects during the war on terrorism. Naval floating armories were tracked and destroyed using US intelligence, US naval blockades reduced the illegal arms trade in the Indian Ocean and supported the belated proscription of the LTTE in the post 9/11 world.
On the flipside, the US has also sponsored multiple resolutions against Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council and even banned the current Army Commander. US backed INGOs and NGOs have long been perceived as assisting or being sympathetic towards the LTTE. Hand-wringing and fist shaking seem to have become the traditional Sri Lankan welcome for American officials visiting the country.
However, Sri Lankans should understand that regardless of the emotional reactions to western imperialism, the country’s economy cannot survive without its trading relationship with the United States.
A Belt around the Neck?
While the US has longstanding military and defense relationships with Sri Lanka, the escalation of hostilities with the LTTE led to restrictions in US military aid to Sri Lanka in 2007. China filled the gap providing direct military aid and equipment. China has since provided a range of modern armaments to the Sri Lankan military whilst also voting against the many US sponsored resolutions at the UNHRC. In return, Sri Lanka has steadfastly supported China at many diplomatic junctures including being one of 50 signatories defending its treatment of Uyghurs and Muslim Minorities in Xinjiang and most recently supporting China’s controversial National Security Law in Hong Kong.
Critics of Sri Lanka’s Sino-relations cite Chinese debt diplomacy and exhibit 1 is the Hambantota Port Debt/ Equity swap. Sri Lanka would appear to be a prime candidate for a potential Chinese debt trap, however the numbers on the surface do not support this claim. Analysts have shown that total debt to China is slightly above 10% of total debt and 60% of Chinese debt can be categorized as ‘concessionary’, though what constitutes ‘concessionary’ might be debated. Various commentators have stated that describing the deal as a debt/ equity swap is misleading. While Sri Lanka received just over USD 1 Bn from China for a 70% stake on a 99 year lease, the agreement did not involve the cancellation of loans from China. The Administration of the time used a small portion of this inflow to settle some short term debt unrelated to the construction of the Port and the remainder was used to bolster foreign exchange reserves.
It is inaccurate to claim that a Chinese debt trap is engulfing Sri Lanka, however non-concessionary debt as a percentage of total debt has been steadily increasing. The more you borrow, the higher your risk profile, the less concessionary future debt becomes. This is simply a natural law of debt and Chinese or not, Sri Lanka is falling into a debt trap. Balance of Payment deficits, budget deficits, investments in major projects without adequate planning, leading to under-performing assets and political manipulations of government revenue generation leads to a weakening of the nation’s credit worthiness. Government officials and ministers as well as members of the business community turn their noses up at conditional borrowings from institutions such as the IMF and view these conditions as suspicious. It is worth considering that these conditions may be better for the country’s long term financial stability.
As is often the case, this requires a trade off against short-term spending which complicates the political sphere. The facts are straight forward, successive Sri Lankan administrations have taken the easy route by simply borrowing to cover budget deficits and to shore up foreign exchange reserves without taking the painful steps required to bring some measure of financial discipline to government spending.
Another aspect of Chinese debt diplomacy that merits discussion are the projects themselves. In 2019, Pakistan cancelled a USD 2 Bn Chinese coal plant project as well as reducing their exposure to loans from Chinese entities. Myanmar scaled down a deep water port project from USD 7.3 Bn to USD 1.3 Bn having decided that debt levels were too high. A proposed Sino-Omani Industrial City that was proposed to cost USD 10 Bn has stalled completely. The Khorgos Gateway in Kazakhstan, 49% owned by China and meant to be the central ‘jewel’ of the modern silk road is basically an under-performing dry port surrounded by an empty 500 hectare field that was slated to become a special economic zone. Some of these projects should sound oddly familiar to anyone with knowledge of the Hambantota port project.
Lending for infrastructure projects require detailed viability studies to ensure the project is not only necessary but able to generate adequate revenue to operate whilst repaying loans. It seems that for many of these projects funded by Chinese banks, viability and revenue generation were not primary concerns for the lending institutions, another suspicious aspect of the BRI.
As a concept, the BRI raises many questions around the motives of the Chinese Communist Party. Sri Lanka had seemingly limited alternatives but to engage China as post war Sri Lanka needed significant investment and dependable partners. The CCP was really the only player and it just so happened that China already had very specific designs on Sri Lanka.
Politicians and the media, especially those on the center-left, are extremely suspicious about the MCC grant and the security agreements (SOFA and ACSA), accusing the US of using these agreements as tools establish military bases and take control of land assets amongst other nefarious motives. The idea that the US needs a grant of USD 500 Mn to exert influence on Sri Lanka seems farfetched. As noted before the US already has significant influence over Sri Lanka through its trading relationship with exports averaging USD 2.0 Bn annually, a tariff of a few percent would diminish Sri Lanka’s export revenue significantly.
The ACSA and SOFA may have different implications. Sri Lanka first signed a SOFA with the US in 1995 and if certain clauses in the renewal agreement are undesirable, for example those relating to protections and privileges for visiting American troops, these must be negotiated. Everything in Foreign Relations can be bargaining chip. The question to be asked is not whether Sri Lanka should sign the SOFA and ACSA, but what the government should ask for in return. A Foreign ministry official, as per Asia.Nikkei.com, stated that Sri Lanka did not want to seem too closely aligned with any nation and that signing a SOFA would lead to complications. Is Sri Lanka not already too closely aligned with China judging by this benchmark? There are other costs to bear in mind, namely the relationship with Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbor: India. The US has been forging ever closer relations with New Delhi, as part of the ‘American Pivot to Asia’ and India is the perfect foil for the US in the Cold War 2.0.
The over-arching narrative, driven by the exploitative and extractive effects of colonialism, is that the Western establishment spent the better part of the last few centuries exploiting the developing world. Modern day military invasions and interventions across the globe, political interference through international organizations and pressure brought by multinationals prove that the suspicion is warranted. More concerning is that many appear to view massive Chinese investment as purely transactional and any consequent cloud of imperialism as benign.
To believe in a benign form of imperialism is akin to the acceptance of a dictator as benevolent. Even if we ignore the 1989 massacre of Tiananmen Square and the hundreds of deaths, we must still contend with the power wielded by the CCP in Hong Kong, with student protestors now under arrest in the mainland. The Tibetan uprising led to over 85,000 deaths as per the CCP, Tibetans in exile claim the toll was much higher. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Indonesia, The Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam and disputes in the East China Sea with Japan still linger. China would also prefer that its support for the Khmer Rouge is forgotten while the media highlights with the plight of the Uighur minority in the Xinjiang region.
It seems rational to turn a suspicious eye towards Chinese investment and deeper entanglement in view of the ever closer alignment. Sri Lankans will notice the increased numbers of Chinese workers in Sri Lanka and their effect on the local job market. There are multiple large scale government contracts being carried out by Chinese companies using Chinese labour and machinery that dilute the benefits to Sri Lanka. Why is there so much overt anti-Americanism when it is China that was able to maneuver itself in to a position from which to negotiate a long term lease of a port, a port that was funded by Chinese bank loans? There is already much speculation that the Colombo Port City will eventually become a Chinese addendum to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has been a developing country for several decades since independence. The slow march towards the Sri Lankan promise continues. At this crucial juncture, with our economy in peril in the midst of global challenges and intrigue, can Sri Lanka afford anti-Americanism? Should the west not at least serve as a counterbalance to be used against the Chinese at the negotiating table? Certainly, Sri Lanka will have to continue to negotiate with the CCP, and must quickly become more effective at this negotiation to ensure the best possible bargain is struck, one that neither antagonizes the West nor betrays the East. The twin alignment remains in the balance.
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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