Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 27, 2020
Rajapaksa’s leadership in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics amidst regional instability

Sri Lanka will hold its Parliamentary election on 5 August. The efficient leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was demonstrated in managing the recent Covid-19 pandemic crisis. It is a proven leadership which will be a significant factor to ensure a landslide victory in the upcoming election for the Rajapaksa front. There are two other factors which will determine a Rajapaksa victory. First, the fracturing of the main opposition party the United National Party (UNP). For the first time in its history, the party is split into two camps which will divide and erode their voter base. Second, the loss of several years of economic growth and political instability due to Sirisena-Wickramasinghe policies finally resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives and threatening national security. Perhaps predicting the upcoming defeat at the elections one-time political spin doctor and former Foreign Minister of Sirisena-Wickramasinghe Government, Mangala Samaraweera, withdrew from the parliamentary race. Hopefully after the upcoming election, the long absent political stability will be restored in the island nation.

There are currently two inquires afloat, one on corruption and the other on negligence. The central bank bond scam and the Easter Sunday terror attack inquiry findings will impact the domestic political landscape. Both inquiries are in full swing, revealing shocking information such as a previous Central Bank Governor accused of the bond scam who is now residing in Singapore having changed his name. On the Easter Sunday inquiry, more previously unheard and unattended information were revealed and exposed to the public on the extremist activities by the perpetrators. Further, discussing the Easter Sunday attack at a recent interview to BBC, former President Sirisena explained “Why should I accept responsibility for the Easter attacks? Responsibility should be taken by those responsible”. As the commander in chief with direct responsibility on national security, there should have been acknowledgement of the failure in authorities. Comparing with another post-terror attack in Norway in 2011, carried out by Anders Behring Breivik, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg apologized to the nation for failings in his duties, and this even without any prior warnings. The Sri Lankan situation was a systemic failure at different levels, the system was headed by no other than the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe duo.

In the economic front, Sri Lanka and many developing nations will face the brunt of Covid-19 and the global economic recession. Japan’s JICA suspended funding for a new project until financial policies and the debt position of Sri Lanka is clarified raising concerns on the current debt situation of the country. Meanwhile, China recently extended its assistance standing strongly with the island nation. As a symbolic gesture, acting Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Hu Wei, handed over an official letter from President Xi to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his 71st birthday, praising his leadership in managing Covid-19. Medical assistance during the pandemic has transformed into financial assistance as China takes the helm in assisting many nations. 

Containment strategies: Sri Lanka’s role in regional stability

The global pandemic has made the world a more dangerous place with pressure surmounting within nations from internal and external pressure in the political, economic and security spheres. Assessing China’s aggression, former Indian National Security Advisor Amb. Shivshankar Menon explains: “it seems to me that it’s part of a general pattern and a general shift in Chinese behaviour in the way they deal with the world. What I supposed the Chinese themselves have called wolf warrior diplomacy”. The general pattern and shift of China’s behaviour could be trickled down to the pressure exerted on China from recent containment strategies at the geopolitical high table. Nations use other nations for their strategic advantage. Long before the Cold War, using Russia’s geographical position, US made an alliance with Russia to act as a wedge and not a bridge between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In the same way, has the US taken advantage of India’s geography to drive a wedge between China and her strategic allies surrounding India? With the brewing conflict of Indo-China, how would Sri Lanka manage its defence and foreign relations with both nations?

China is directly facing geopolitical challenges arising from multiple issues at multiple geographies at the same time, from the surrounding Indian geosphere at Galwan and Pangong Tso, Ladakh, Senkaku Islands, South China Sea, Taiwan to the streets of Hong Kong. According to professor Srikanth Kondapalli, ‘all of these Chinese assertive and aggressive responses have been put down to a new “wolf warrior” diplomacy and is a bid to cover-up the Covid-19 disaster’. While China’s presence in the multiple geographies is visible, it does not reflect that its actions are intended to cover up the pandemic. More than a cover-up, it is symbolic and strategic, depicting Beijing’s military might at multiple locations simultaneously. A clash triggered at Galawan Valley between Indian and Chinese troops with casualties for both sides was explained by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian by stating: “on 15 June Indian troops seriously violated our consensus and twice crossed the borderline for illegal activities and provoked and attacked Chinee personnel.” The direct accusation by China has intensified and reset the China-India confidence-building mechanism (CBM) exercises during the last three decades, while both sides accuse each other of violating the unmarked border, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) of 3,440 km distance. Threats at the harsh geographical terrain are linked to the larger geopolitical context. There has been a threat looming from the militarization of strategic alliances in which India has played an active role.

While the pandemic environment has the potential to severely erode military budgets and minimize the military projection of many nations, there seems to be silent military alignments and infrastructure expansions taking place in South Asia. With the US President’s decision to reformat G7 grouping of the advanced economies to G11, inviting India, Australia, South Korea, and Russia is a significant step impacting Indo-Pacific geopolitical space. Two scholars from India, Mansheetal Singh and Megha Gupta suggest that the ‘Indo-Pacific requires an urgent need for a coordinated strategy to mute China’s swaying strategies in the region. Leadership for this should come through mooting a proposed Indo - Pacific Treaty Organization (IPTO). IPTO must be patterned on the lines of NATO which have been a successful and effective association even after the disintegration of the USSR. Only through an alliance like this can we hope to avert further security turbulences inflicted by China in the Indo Pacific region’.

The Mutual Military Logistics Support Agreement with reciprocal access to military bases was signed on June 4 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison. This agreement would strengthen the quadrilateral partnership that includes Japan and the U.S, further. The agreement adds to India’s already existing agreements with the United States, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. These agreements would assist to secure India’s role as a net security provider of the region and to contain Chinese influence in India’s marine sphere. Australian Scholar David Brewster highlights that ‘Australia will need a sober understanding of India’s likely future abilities to act as a regional security provider across our shared oceanic space.’ While the agreements would provide strength, it also drags India closer to US orbit and the western sphere, departing from its South-South agenda away from Iran in India’s western shores. The Sri Lankan government did not proceed with the similar US military logistics agreement SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and financial assistance MCC (Millennium Challenge Compact) seeing it as detrimental to its national security. This position could push Sri Lanka closer to the Chinese orbit despite its neighbor’s alliances with the US.

Thus, the entire focus is on India’s north, on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). There is less focus on India’s south, the Indian Ocean and its littorals. Seeing the growing security threat from China in India’s vicinity, there will be strong reaction to counter and strengthen India’s role as the net security provider of the region. At the beginning of the year, India started to reorganize its military command structure by introducing the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) since 1947, General Bipin Rawat. Sri Lanka introduced its CDS many years back, providing a single point of view to the government on the three armed services under a unified command. Perhaps the reason India took so long was to keep military at limited engagement with bureaucracy at the center. The shift and internal reorganization would assist its process to take swift coordinated action.

The tense situation in the Sino-India relationship will have an impact on regional nations that maintain a cordial relationship with both countries. The recent conflict has got the Indian foreign policy circle to revisit their view on China and long-term economic barriers for Chinese products are already being discussed. India would need a mediatory partner to ease the tension in the region, while conflict would minimize the strategic space for nations like Sri Lanka to gain and maximize its gains while not antagonizing either. There is no harm in Sri Lanka playing a mediatory role left behind by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake in December 1962, where she was trusted by both nations to minimize the tension and draw up the ‘Colombo Proposals’, which India accepted, and China accepted in principle. Although the context is different to 1962, Sri Lanka with its unique geography in the Indian Ocean, being the closest neighbor to India and a strong strategic partner to China, revisiting and resuscitating its foreign policy legacy, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could perhaps play an active role with the question of regional stability increasingly being contested.

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Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is an international security and geopolitics analyst and strategic advisor from Sri Lanka. He has led two government think tanks providing strategic advocacy. ...

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